Several US seafood associations, lawmakers and lobbyists are joining global leaders in condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and are voicing their support for a ban on Russian seafood imports.

In mid-February, Alaska Republican Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation that would ban all seafood imports from Russia, citing Russia’s own prohibition on the importation of US and other western seafood products since 2014.

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The legislation, introduced prior to any clarity on whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin would order troops into Ukraine, has so far been blocked by Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey from moving forward, but Sullivan said the bill has the support of all of his Republican colleagues, who support "basic reciprocity for fishermen."

Markey told US lawmakers seafood processors in Massachusetts are concerned about the "potential sudden effects" that could result from a "new immediate ban" on Russian seafood imports.

He testified such a ban would impact "hundreds of union workers in the seafood processing industry" in the state, without naming specific companies or unions that would be compromised.

Russian seafood has been a thorn in the side of many US firms, particularly those supplying species in direct competition -- most notably Alaska pollock and crab.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen said her organization supports any ban imposed, adding that crab demand could be met if that happened.

"While domestic-caught crab only supplies a portion of the US demand and less this year with the low Alaska crab quotas, there are other countries like Canada and Norway that can help fill demand, keeping markets strong," Goen told IntraFish.

"Ideally, all seafood trade is open and fair. However, until such time that trade is fair and reciprocal, we support a ban on imports of Russian seafood."

Large trade imbalance

In 2021, the United States imported 48,867 metric tons of seafood from Russia, worth $1.2 billion (€1 billion). Of that, crab accounted for a significant portion, with frozen snow crab and frozen red king crab accounting for over $900 million (€796 million).

The issue of the Russia-US trade imbalance has been so hot-button for Alaska in recent years that in 2020 the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) released a white paper on the topic.

A key point in the paper stated Alaska and Russia harvest many of the same species and many Russia-origin products are available in the US market, often at lower prices than comparable Alaska products.

Russia represented a roughly $60 million (€53.7 million) market for Alaska seafood prior to the 2014 ban.

Alaska seafood producers exported $61.3 million (€54.9 million) worth of products to Russia in 2013. Salmon roe, primarily pink, accounted for 76.4 percent of this export value in 2013, and the majority of export value in previous years as well, according to ASMI.

"The trade implications are not clear but uncertainty is always difficult," Jeremey Woodrow, executive director of ASMI, told IntraFish.

"As with the rest of the world, our thoughts at this time are on the safety of our Ukrainian friends, colleagues and longtime partners. Ukraine has been a growing region for Alaska seafood, and we have many strong relationships in the region. It’s our sincere hope that this conflict will end soon."

Others in the US seafood industry this week have spoken out against Russia, citing a major trade imbalance.

“Since Russia initiated its embargo, Alaska’s seafood producers have suffered unfairly by being locked out of key Russian seafood markets,” said Chris Barrows, president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association earlier this week.

The association's members include Trident Seafoods, Alaska General Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Alyeska Seafood, UniSea and Westward Seafoods.

Ongoing frustrations

Alaska pollock producers have also long taken issue with competition from Russian pollock imports, citing even Russia's unfair advantage when it came to pollock used in national school lunch programs.

In December 2020, Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents the Alaska catcher-processor fleet, testified during a US Senate subcommittee hearing that US fishing vessels had been shaken by a spate of incidents involving Russian military vessels in the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

"If indeed these exercises are part of Russia’s effort to establish a more assertive presence in the Arctic—especially in a world where receding sea ice extent provides a set of new economic and military opportunities for regional powers— that is a cause of genuine alarm for our industry," Madsen told lawmakers in her testimony.

The most recent Alaska pollock vs. Russia controversy involved the so-called Bayside Program saga.

The US government accused Alaska pollock suppliers and logistics firms of using the controversial shipping route to move unknown, Russian-origin fish through American Seafoods' Bayside, Canada facility when domestic product was held up over the legality of the Bayside Program.