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Defending Alaska seafood, commissioner questions sustainability of Russia-caught fish

Berett Wilber
Alaska pollock make up the nation's top-volume single-species commercial seafood catch. Most of it comes from the Bering Sea, and the catch on the Russian side is bigger than the catch on the U.S. side, even though all the fish is called "Alaska pollock."

The commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game has urged the organization that certifies seafood harvests as sustainable to revoke its endorsements for Russian-caught fish.

Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang is calling on the Marine Stewardship Council to stop certifying Russian harvests.

He made both a moral argument and a plea in defense of the Alaska seafood industry. Any support of Russian business ultimately supports that country’s invasion of Ukraine, he argued.

“It is nothing short of outrageous that over the last 15 months the MSC has observed Russian actions in Ukraine, assessed the implications for its Russian client fisheries, and chosen a path of accommodation and appeasement,” Vincent-Lang wrote in a letter to Rupert Howes, chairman of the London-based nonprofit organization. “You have preserved your own revenue stream from Russian fisheries while providing indirect support for the Putin regime and his brutal war of aggression all the while applying more strict standards to Alaska’s fisheries.”

The Vincent-Lang complaint comes amid a wider effort to limit or stop imports of Russian-origin seafood, which is being sold in the United States and elsewhere despite embargoes.

Seafood harvested in Russian waters can get to the U.S. and to other markets because it is processed elsewhere – in China, generally – and then exported as a non-Russian product.

That pattern has led to years of legislative attempts to stop or slow imports into the U.S. of Russian-origin fish.

Last week, Alaska’s congressional delegation introduced companion bills aimed at closing what the members characterized as “loopholes” that are putting Russian fish into the U.S. market.

“Russia’s hostile actions around the world are not limited to the land. While they have banned imports of U.S. seafood, they continue to sell their catch, including large amounts of pollock caught by trawling, into our stores,” Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said in a joint delegation statement. “Often, they disguise their product by processing it in and re-exporting from China. We need to stand up for ocean health and our American fishermen, and make sure that Americans are not unknowingly buying seafood from Russian vessels that have little oversight or regulation.”

Vincent-Lang said his efforts with the Marine Stewardship Council are in defense of Alaska seafood, which competes heavily with Russian seafood.

“We’re convinced our seafood products are sustainably harvested,” he said in an interview. He said it is unfair to allow any Russian harvests to be certified as sustainable when, ever since the invasion of Ukraine, council representatives have been limited in their ability to verify operator claims.

Applying the council’s “blue tick” of sustainability to Russian harvests without the fishery observers that are onboard Alaska vessels and other checks that are in place in the state “diminishes the quality of our sustainable management certification,” he said.

In Alaska, observers are posted on large vessels operating in federally managed fisheries like the pollock harvest but generally not on smaller vessels harvesting salmon and other species in state waters.

Vincent-Lang’s letter was reviewed at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s meeting earlier this month in Sitka. Though the council made no formal comment on it, several fishery participants expressed appreciation, the commissioner said.

In a statement, the Marine Stewardship Council said it is “deeply dismayed” at the accusations in Vincent-Lang’s letter and that the commissioner misinterprets what is being done with certification of Russian fisheries and in the organization’s operations more broadly.

“While we recognize the concern in Mr. Vincent-Lang’s letter about the war in Ukraine, we believe that it does not capture the reality of MSC’s current operations relating to Russia and welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. Just to be clear, we have not lowered MSC’s certification requirements to enable Russian fisheries to stay in the program,” the statement said.

The council does not have a financial interest in certifying Russian seafood, the statement said, and Vincent-Lang is mistaken in asserting that the MSC program has kept Russian seafood flowing into Western markets.

“Despite the war, Russian seafood continues to be traded globally. The US prohibited the import of seafood from the Russian Federation in March 2022, but indirect imports have continued. Many countries have not imposed restrictions, including important trading blocs like the EU – due to food security and affordability concerns,” the statement said, referring to the European Union. “If the MSC ecolabel disappeared from products, it may cause short-term disruption for retailers who have made sustainability commitments, but the legal trade in Russian seafood would continue. What would be lost would be the incentives for Russian fisheries to maintain the environmental performance needed if we are to tackle the challenges facing the ocean.”

In March of 2022, shortly after the start of the Ukraine invasion, Howes issued a statement saying that the council was “profoundly shocked and deeply concerned” by Russia’s actions and the resulting suffering of the Ukrainian people. The statement warned that some Russian fisheries might lose their sustainability certification for lack of verification.

Russian harvests that currently hold sustainability certification include 10 specific Pacific salmon fisheries in that nation’s Far East, which the MSC said have been verified by on-site audits. Alaska salmon harvests in general are certified by the MSC as sustainable. Some Russian Pacific cod and halibut harvests are currently certified; the certification for Alaska-caught cod and halibut is more general, according to the MSC website.

Russian seafood has posed formidable competition to Alaska in the global marketplace for several years.

As is the case in the U.S., much of Russia’s commercial seafood catch comes from the Bering Sea. And the fish are generally the same species as those harvested in Alaska.

One big concern cited by Alaska officials is pollock. The pollock caught on the Russian side of the Bering Sea is also called Alaska pollock, Vincent-Lang noted. “They’re selling `Alaska pollock’ that’s Russian-caught,” he said.

In 2021, Russia had 89% of the world’s king crab market, 54% of the wild salmon market, 50% of the Alaska pollock market and 44% of the Pacific cod market, according to statistics gathered by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. In contrast, Alaska and the rest of the U.S. had 6% of the king crab market, 37% of the wild salmon market, 42% of the Alaska pollock market and 39% of the Pacific cod market, according to those statistics.

The war has created numerous problems for the Alaska seafood industry, including interruptions of exports from Alaska to Ukraine and travel difficulties for Ukrainian workers who had previously been important to seasonal Alaska seafood operations, according to a white paper issued by ASMI last year.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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