Alaska’s seafood industry is in trouble. Processors and policymakers blame Russia.

boats offload to processing plants
Boats offload to Kodiak’s myriad of shoreside processing plants. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Alaska waters produce the most seafood in the country, and many of the state’s coastal communities depend on commercial fisheries to sustain their economy.

But Alaska’s fisheries are facing a massive economic slump right now, and policymakers are increasingly blaming flooded global markets. The private sector and federal policymakers are teaming up to try to stop the bleeding.

Last year was brutal for the seafood industry. Processing companies and fishermen alike suffered amid cratering prices, and they blamed Russia for flooding markets. Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, from Alaska, pointed his finger at the country at a news conference on May 23.

“Russians have essentially admitted they’re not just at war in Ukraine, they’re at war with the American fishing industry,” he said.

Alaska’s other federal delegates, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola, shared similar sentiments at ComFish, a fisheries trade show in Kodiak.

The U.S. and Russia have been fighting over their seafood trade for years.

Recent highlights include a Russian ban on American goods in 2014.

The U.S. government didn’t put its own ban on Russian goods in place until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Despite that embargo, there was a loophole in the U.S. restrictions, at least for seafood. Russian-caught fish processed in third-party countries, namely China, could still be sold in American markets.

That lasted until late last year. Then, amid intense lobbying from the U.S. seafood industry, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that finally closed the loophole and any chances for Russian fish getting to America.

The move could boost demand for Alaska fish in the U.S., but America is just one of three major markets for Alaska seafood — it’s sold all over the world.

boats in a harbor
Many kinds of fish can be harvested around Alaska like cod, halibut, salmon, and pollock as well as shellfish like king and tanner crab. Fishermen often target multiple species throughout a year. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

“It’s like a balloon – and so when you push in one area, you have a reaction in another area,” said John Sackton, the founder of the online trade publication SeafoodNews.

Japan and European countries are also major markets for Alaska fish, and Sackton said they’re still allowing Russian seafood imports.

Alaska pollock is the largest fishery in the U.S. by volume, and prices for that species took a major hit last year. Sackton said that’s in part because Russia began selling surimi, a paste made from pollock, into Japanese markets at low prices.

“So all of a sudden, the prices of surimi collapsed,” he said. “And now the surimi market in Japan, which used to be a mainstay of Alaska, is now primarily Russian pollock.”

He said a similar story played out in Europe and drove down the prices for pollock filets, as well.

That’s caused major problems for seafood processors in Alaska. Sackton said that unless Europe and Japan put their own bans in place, the continued sale of Russian fish into those markets will likely blunt the impact of the Biden administration’s recent action.

“This is a sign that there’s a lot of pain in the industry,” Sackton said. “And so the pollock ban – lobbying for the pollock ban – was a short-term benefit. People probably didn’t have any choice except to try to get whatever short-term benefits they could, but it’s not going to change the overall dynamic.”

Sen. Sullivan recently met with the U.S. commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, whose department regulates the American fishing industry. He’s lobbying the Biden administration to convince a group of foreign allies known as the G7 to establish their own bans.

“There is a G7 leaders meeting coming up in the next three weeks,” Sullivan said. “We covered language on what we think would be good for the leaders to agree to, and I’ll just end with this – the key really is follow through.”

The G7, or Group of Seven, is made up of the U.S. and six other countries with major economies around the world including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The European Union is what’s called a “non-enumerated member.”

The industry’s slowdown has had major consequences for seafood companies. Trident Seafoods, the biggest processing business in the United States, announced last year that it would sell about a third of its Alaska plants, partly because it said that competing with Russian-origin seafood has been tough.

boats in a harbor
One of the facilities Trident listed for sale is its Star of Kodiak plant, the largest plant in its namesake town. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

But a Trident subsidiary in Europe is still buying the Russian fish that its executives say are undercutting Alaska seafood prices. That’s according to a recent report by Undercurrent News, a trade publication.

Trident Chief Executive Officer Joe Bundrant was also on Sullivan’s press call. He said that while he’d prefer to support the fishing fleet that sells to the company’s Alaska processing plants, Trident can’t lower margins enough to compete with Russian production.

“Our mission every day is to wake up and drive value for wild Alaska seafood, and it pains me greatly to make that decision,” Bundrant said. “But until there’s some support from G7 countries, it’s an economic necessity for survival.”

Bundrant said in some cases, Russian pollock is sold for up to $1,000 per ton less than Trident can produce itself.

The market pressure even caused at least one company, Peter Pan Seafoods, to close indefinitely.

Seafood companies and fishermen often target multiple species to reduce their risk, but the current price collapse is almost across the board.

Pink salmon sold at docks for just 24 cents per pound across regions on average in 2023. That’s about half what fishermen were paid in 2022, according to state data.

Bristol Bay sockeye sold at docks for as little as 50 cents per pound last year – the lowest price paid in decades, when adjusted for inflation.Intrafish reports Silver Bay Seafoods will pay at least 80 cents per pound for Bristol Bay sockeye this year, but did not respond to request for comment. The company is also expected to pay $1.10 per pound for chilled fish, with more bonuses for bleeding them before selling to the processor.

The announcement is months ahead of when processors usually announce prices for salmon in late summer.

Citing recent news reports, Sen. Sullivan claims that fish from Russia sell for so little in part because that country, and China, use forced labor in their processing facilities.

“That’s what we have to compete against,” he said. “We should be promoting high standards globally, not allowing for a race to the bottom.”

The senator’s staff have also confirmed that he has been in contact with officials in Japan and the European Union to push for banning Russian seafood. His staff did not have an estimate how long it would take to convince other nations to establish bans.

Sullivan said he hopes to include fisheries-related provisions in the upcoming renewal of the federal farm bill to provide more stability for the industry – a mutual goal among all of Alaska’s congressional delegation.

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