The US is the world’s largest seafood importer, and a significant quantity of the fish being imported originates in Russia. However, to a large extent this is not reflected in our import statistics, as became clear in a recent House subcommittee hearing on a ban on Russian seafood set to take effect on June 23.
This is because in recent years an increasing amount of the seafood produced globally is first shipped to one county for processing before it is shipped to the country where it will be consumed. This creates significant environmental and social challenges as it masks where and under what conditions fish has been caught and also increases risk of mislabeling.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is serious and sanctions are an obvious response. The fact that seafood is one of Russia’s larger export goods, with a significant share coming to the US via third countries, makes improved traceability necessary for the sanctions to bite. This gives lawmakers an opportunity to also address one of the most serious challenges to fish stocks globally because the general lack of traceability can mask a number of activities abhorrent to many Americans. Hence, any mechanisms implemented to foster traceability in the seafood trade may be as important for the world as limiting Russian aggression.
We know that more than a one-third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished. We know that there are fleets using forced labor to overfish unregulated fish stocks and that it is highly likely that some of this fish ends up on American dinner plates. The US has instigated several initiatives to combat problematic seafood production practices, with dolphin-safe tuna and turtle excluder devices on shrimp gear among the most well-known.
However, these are just first steps in tackling what is known as “Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported” (IUU) fishing. The diversity of Russia’s fishing industry and the number of countries that can re-export Russian seafood means well designed initiatives also can be effective tools in combating unsustainable fishing practices and facilitating traceability worldwide.
That said, there are several challenges associated with instituting a global traceability system. For instance, China is both the world’s largest importer and then re-exporter of seafood, with 74 percent of its imported fish processed for re-export. A traceability system would have to be able to capture data about the fish.
China is also the world’s largest fishing nation, landing approximately 14 million tons of fish — about 15 percent of the annual global catch — with a significant share of its catches occurring in international waters, which also is involved in IUU fishing.
This is an issue that has to be addressed if the US seeks effective sanctions of Russian fish and if we want to address IUU fishing globally. The re-exports are also important for the US fishing industry as China is the largest export market for American seafood and significant quantities are even shipped back to the US Just take a look at the label the next time you buy frozen wild salmon.
Given its ample coastlines, why does the US even need to import seafood? The answer is that US fish stocks are sustainably managed but also fully utilized and production cannot be increased without compromising this sustainability. The only viable alternative is aquaculture, but that approach receives little public support.
Yes, there is a cost to implementing traceability systems. However, there are also ways to limit them. The leading role of the US and the European Union (EU) as importers with similar concerns about Russian seafood as well as IUU fishing suggests that there is an opportunity for a global system to become “de facto” if required by these trade blocks. Hence, cooperation with the EU is important for the effectiveness of a traceability system, but also to ensure US firms and consumers don’t have to bear the full cost of an unlevel playing field. The scope for international cooperation is therefore both significant and desirable.
The importance of Russian seafood exports and the desirability of effective sanctions of these exports provides a unique opportunity to create a lasting improvement in the global seafood system. Given that it does not require a significant extra step beyond what is necessary for effective sanctions of Russian seafood and our allies shared concerns about IUU fishing, we can hope that the measures taken by Congress will lead us to pursue this opportunity.
Frank Asche is a professor in the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences and the Food Systems Institute at the University of Florida. He has published widely on seafood production and markets. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.