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Putin’s Pollock: The Russian military machine is fueled by seafood imports from the United States

A U.S. ban on Russian seafood imports was likely to cost billions of dollars to Vladimir Putin’s war machine, according to analysts.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the United States imposed an embargo on Russian seafood imports, which was expected to cause billions of dollars in losses for Vladimir Putin’s military machine.

On the other hand, import regulations are so loose that Russian pollock, salmon, and crab will almost likely make their way to the United States via China, which is a major player in the global seafood supply network.

Russia’s seafood industry, like the one in the United States, is heavily reliant on China for processing and distribution. Because there are no country of origin labeling rules in China, the fish can be re-exported to the United States under the label “product of China.”

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The International Trade Commission published a report in 2019 stating that around a third of the wild-caught fish imported from China was caught in Russian waterways. Pollock and sockeye salmon have significantly higher mortality rates, ranging from 50 percent to 75 percent.

“Cod is not captured in China,” says the author. In the opinion of Sally Yozell, a former policy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who previously served as a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, whitefish are one of the world’s most important exports. Because the product is made in China, consumers and restaurants should not be subjected to any additional fees or restrictions.

Fishing is one of Russia’s most important sectors, and it has a close relationship with the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to project power at sea. The export of king crab accounted for the vast majority of the country’s $1.2 billion in sales last year, ranking it as the ninth largest seafood supplier to the United States.

The amount of fish exported to the United States by China, which brought in an additional $1.7 billion in revenue last year, is a mystery, on the other hand. Companies are not required to find out about the Biden administration’s ban on Chinese imports, which is another advantage.

Russians enjoy pollock from Alaska, which is a popular fish export. Alaska pollock, a cousin of cod, is the most commonly harvested fish in the United States, and it is used in a variety of dishes ranging from imitation crabmeat to McDonald’s Filet o’Fish. Every year, massive floating factories in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska catch fish weighing more than four times the weight of the Empire State Building in the region.

Furthermore, in addition to being harvested in Russia, the same species is also imported from China in similar quantities, filling a huge hole in the American market as a result of its availability. As a result of Alaska pollock’s widespread name awareness, it is no longer possible to determine the fish’s native country in the United States.

 CEO Craig Morris stated that “consumers may have confidence that if the term Alaska is on the box, it undeniably comes from Alaskan waters.”

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, there was growing pressure to keep out what Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan called “authoritarian” pollock, which Putin had prohibited in 2014 after American sanctions were imposed in retaliation for his annexation of Crimea and annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Because of duty-free access, the value of Russian exports to the United States has nearly doubled in the intervening period.

High Liner Foods was the leading importer of Russian-caught pollock from China in the United States last year, according to data from the International Trade Administration.

Despite Russia’s global notoriety as an oil and gas producer, the country’s seafood industry has been steadily expanding in strength, thanks to the Kremlin’s support.

Gleb Frank, the son of Vladimir Putin’s former transportation minister and the chairman of state-owned shipbuilder Sovcomflot, is the owner of two of Russia’s largest seafood exporters, Russian Fishery Co. and Russian Crab, both of which are based in Vladivostok. Gleb Frank is also the chairman of the Russian Federation of Shipbuilders (RFS). Frank Timchenko is the son-in-law of one of Russia’s wealthiest billionaires, Gennady Timchenko, who was one of the first to be sanctioned following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Gennady Timchenko is also the son-in-law of one of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs, Gennady Timchenko.

Because of hefty government financing, Frank’s companies have been at the forefront of Russia’s efforts to upgrade its aging fleet. During a Navy Day ceremony at a St. Petersburg shipyard last year, Putin was joined by 50 warships as he unveiled a cutting-edge super trawler capable of delivering 60,000 tons of pollock every year.

After being sanctioned by the United States last month, Frank resigned from his positions as chairman of both fisheries businesses. In addition, he sold a portion of his ownership interests in both businesses. Russian Fishery Co. did not respond to a lengthy list of questions about the United States embargo, but Russian Crab asserted that Frank was never involved in the functioning of the company.

Concerns are not exclusively based on the fact that the industry has ties to the Russian government.

Environmentalists have previously criticized Russia’s performance in relation to the oceans. When it comes to efforts to combat illegal and unreported fishing, according to a new study, the country ranks No. 2 out of 152 countries. Only China came in at a lower position.

Russia has been accused of illegal fishing anywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic, where a Russian ship was accused of faking its GPS data in order to fish illegally during the off-season in the Antarctic in 2020. According to reports, some Antarctic fishing vessels received anomalous capture statistics from a Russian observer and reported it to the authorities. Russia has denied any impropriety on both occasions.

House Democratic Whip Jared Huffman has advocated for the extension of NOAA’s Seafood Import Monitoring Program. The program, which tracks shipments from the point of catch, aims to keep illegal seafood out of the United States’ supply chains. Currently, the program is in its third year of implementation. Russia currently only fishes for the red king crab and the Atlantic cod under the current fishing regulations.

According to Huffman, American buyers are unwittingly contributing to Putin’s war machine while Russian seafood covers grocery store shelves.

According to former US Customs Service attorney Peter Quinter, the Biden administration just needs to compel importers to monitor their supply chains to ensure that no seafood is arriving from Russia in order to close the China gap.

Quinter, a trade law specialist who now consults with the fish industry, believes that “they can and should” resolve the situation. “Unlike in the past, it is no longer feasible to ensure that your fish was obtained in a specific country or area.”