Seafood shop braces for job losses, fish face sanctions | local business

By PATRICK WHITTLE Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — The global seafood industry braces for price increases, supply disruptions and potential job losses as new rounds of economic sanctions against Russia make it harder to source key species like cod and crab.

The latest round of US attempts to punish Russia for invading Ukraine includes import bans on seafood, alcohol and diamonds. The US is also stripping Russia of its “most favored nation” status. Nations around the world are taking similar steps.

Russia is one of the largest producers of seafood in the world and was the fifth-largest producer of wild-caught fish, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Russia isn’t one of the top seafood exporters to the US, but it is the world leader in cod exports (the US’s preference for fish and chips). It’s also a major supplier of crab and Alaska pollock, which are commonly used in fast-food sandwiches and processed items like fish fingers.

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Impacts are likely to be felt worldwide as well as in locations with functioning waterfronts. One of them is Maine, where more than $50 million of fish products from Russia flowed through Portland in 2021, according to federal statistics.

“If you get cod from Russia, that becomes a problem,” said Glen Libby, an owner of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a fish market in Tenants Harbor, Maine. “It’s quite a mess. We’ll see how it goes.”

According to census data, from January 1, 2020 to January 31, 2022, Russia exported more than 28 million pounds of cod to the United States.

The European Union and the United Kingdom are both heavily dependent on Russian seafood. And seafood prices are already rising in Japan, a big seafood consumer, which is restricting its trade with Russia.

In the UK, where fish and chips are a cultural icon, shopkeepers and consumers alike brace for price jumps. UK fish and chip shops were already under pressure from rising energy costs and rising food prices.

Andrew Crook, head of the National Federation of Fish Friers, said earlier this month that – before the war – he expected a third of Britain’s fish and chip shops to go out of business. If fish prices shoot even higher, “we’re in real trouble,” he said.

In mid-March, the UK imposed a 35% tariff increase on Russian whitefish, including chip shop cod and haddock.

“We’re a big part of British culture and it would be a shame if that went away,” Crook told ITV.

U.S. consumers are most likely to feel the impact of sanctions through the price and availability of fish, said Kanae Tokunaga, who directs the Coastal and Marine Economics Lab at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.

“Because seafood is a global commodity, you’ll notice the price increase even if it’s not harvested in Russia,” Tokunaga said.

In the US, reliance on foreign cod stems from the loss of its own once-robust Atlantic cod fishery, which collapsed in the face of overfishing and environmental changes. US fishermen, based primarily in New England, brought more than 100 million pounds of cod a year to the docks in the early 1980s, but the 2020 catch was less than 2 million pounds.

Regulators have tried to save the fishery with management measures such as very low catch quotas, and many fishermen targeting other East Coast demersal species such as haddock and flounder are now avoiding cod altogether.

Seafood processors in Massachusetts are concerned about job losses due to the loss of Russian products, said US Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who supports sanctions against Russia.

“I’ve heard from seafood processors in my home state who have concerns about the possible sudden impact of a new, immediate import ban on their workforce, including hundreds of union workers in the seafood processing industry,” he told the Senate in February.

For U.S. producers of seafood like fish and chips, the shortage of Russian cod could mean turning to other foreign sources, said Walt Golet, an assistant research professor in the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.

“We could maybe bring in more from Norway and a little more from the Canadian fishery,” Golet said. “It’s really determined by the price of those imports.”

As an alternative, producers and consumers could sample underutilized fish species caught inland, such as Atlantic pollock and redfish, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

“Maybe it’s time to use haddock or hake or monkfish, something else,” Martens said. “If it disrupts supply chains, it offers an opportunity for other species to fill that gap.”

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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