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US seafood industry looking more Russian every day

Department of Commerce nominee floated an idea that sounds eerily protectionist.

If it sounds too good to be true, it is likely a politician pandering to a crowd.

And last month we saw a whopper of a “sounds too good to be true” moment.

"Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter," the billionaire businessman Wilbur Ross said at his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Department of Commerce in January.

OK, Wilbur, slow your roll for a second.

US per capita consumption jumps dramatically

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Our edible-seafood trade deficit in 2015, according to NOAA, was $13.2 billion (€12.4 billion). We imported $18.8 billion (€17.7 billion) in seafood and shipped out $5.6 billion (€5.3 billion).

Did you know, though, that the United States is a net exporter of non-edible seafood (fishmeal, etc.). We exported $22.8 billion (€21.5 billion) worth in 2015 and imported $15.5 billion (€14.6 billion).

The accepted estimate is that as much as 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. The idea that we could become a net exporter of seafood under the current industry conditions is nonsense, and it’s a whopper of a lie worthy of the current administration occupying the White House.

Much of the fury over US seafood trade is ginned up by the domestic shrimp and catfish industries, which no matter how much relief they get from the government in terms of dumping duties, increased inspection of imports, marketing funds and disaster relief, can’t seem to compete with their imported counterparts.

This is not some conspiracy or some plot to kill US jobs -- this is a free market, where price and quality intersect with buyer expectations to create various levels of demand.

I don’t think the US shrimp industry can or will ever be able to compete in the global shrimp market – it doesn’t have the scale or cohesive structure to play in that market. We import more than 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp. Meanwhile, total US annual landings in the Gulf have averaged 129 million pounds over the last 16 years..

Unless Poseidon suddenly turns the Gulf of Mexico waters into a big bowl of shrimp stew, the US industry can’t expect to play with the big boys of the shrimp world.

But Ross’s comments give a false hope to certain US seafood sectors fixated on being victims of unfair trade and longing for protectionist policies to kick out foreign-born seafood imports.

As my colleague Drew Cherry noted in a column in November, another country -- Russia -- has taken the protectionist path regarding seafood and the results have been unstabling.

Russia's import ban was originally introduced in August 2014 in response to a number of trade sanctions imposed by the West against Russia because of its annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine. Last summer, Putin extended Russia’s import ban on several types of foods from western countries to December 2017.

Putin's protectionist ban on seafood imports from western countries has marginally shifted some domestic commodity production to value-added products and spurred some investments in domestic processing.

But the supply of fish is far from the quality and the volume Russian consumers are used to, and that is why consumption fell to around 14 kilograms per capita through the 12 months to July, 2016, down 26 percent from the year prior, and down 37 percent from 2014.

The last thing we need here in the States is to depress seafood consumption further.

Given the current administration’s apparent close ties to Russia, its public statements regarding the scrapping of NAFTA, its plans for a potential 20 percent tax on imports and its simmering trade tension with China -- Ross’s comments about reversing our seafood trade deficit hit a disturbing protectionist tone when I heard them.

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There are things Ross can do as Commerce Secretary to help the US seafood industry -- keep the focus on good fishery’s science and world-class fisheries management, ignite the US aquaculture industry, create a generic seafood marketing campaign to boost consumption -- but revamping our seafood trade policy to make it more like Russia’s is not the direction for him to travel.

(PS: Over the weekend the Washington Post reported obtaining a White House memo that calls for some major cuts in the NOAA budget, which is controlled by Ross's Department of Commerce.

NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would lose $126 million (€118.8 million), or 26 percent, of its current funds. Its satellite data division would lose $513 million (€483.8 million), or 22 percent, of its current funding under the proposal.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and National Weather Service would suffer 5 percent cuts. The Sea Grant program, which supports coastal research, would be eliminated entirely.

It's too soon to know what shape the final NOAA budget will take, but it seems clear from the administration's first shot over the bow that it plans to greatly reduce the agency's climate and other research programs.

I am calling on the seafood industry to get involved now before things progress too far. All of you companies and associations that love to brag about pollock being the best managed fishery in the world -- step up and defend NOAA scientists and their work. All major US seafood companies that rely on US waters for the products you sell, get involved. NFI, where are you on this issue?

And all you sustainable seafood groups -- MSC, the Sustainable Seafood Partnership, Fishwise, Seafood Watch, RFM and on and on -- that have built yourselves off the backs of this industry and the work of researchers and fisheries managers at the state and national levels, get off your asses and enter the fray.)


Twitter: @john_fiorillo


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