After the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, countries and companies around the globe rightly announced plans to stop doing business with Russia. Just last week, the U.S. issued its latest restrictions: An executive order banning a number of iconic Russian products, including vodka and seafood. While Russia may be better known as a purveyor of the infamous liquor, the U.S. buys significantly more seafood from the country — importing more than $1.2 billion in crab, cod and other fish in 2021.
The ban on seafood could pack a significant blow to Russia’s economy. It is meaningless, however, without tools to help the U.S. trace the origins of the food that ends up in restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets. The U.S. government has already gone to great lengths to ban the import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas and coal, and the same steps should be taken with seafood.
Seafood is one of the most traded food commodities in the world, but a lack of transparency and traceability exists across the seafood supply chain. Currently, Russian-caught fish can easily be shipped to another country, such as China, where much of the global seafood is processed, and then shipped to the U.S. masking its origins. In fact, an industry trade association reportedly told its members that Russian fish processed in China would not be impacted, effectively giving the green light to continue to import Russian seafood into the U.S., where it can be masked in breaded fish sticks, canned salmon and crab.
Instead of taking steps to evade the ban, the industry should work with the U.S. government to take the steps necessary to implement it. This reinforces why we need a strong, effective seafood traceability program that requires fish to be tracked from the boat to when it enters the U.S. Only through such a system can the government truly prevent Russian fish from coming into our markets and ending up on the plates of unwitting American consumers.
The U.S. government has a program to track seafood known as the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP). Operating since 2018, SIMP was designed to prevent illegally harvested seafood from entering U.S. markets but, unfortunately, only focuses on 13 species, and it does not require traceability for many Russian products entering U.S. markets, including pollock, salmon and halibut.
To be effective, SIMP must be extended to all fish stocks, ensuring Russia seafood cannot be laundered halfway around the world, through another market or disguised under another label. This will provide greater confidence to consumers that the seafood they buy was not harvested by Russian ships, processed in Russian facilities or co-mingled with Russian catch.
The good news is that the U.S. fishing industry would be able to make up the difference by increasing U.S. caught seafood in our markets, increasing domestic revenues, benefiting our fishing communities, and growing jobs and economic opportunity at home.
The decision by President Joe Biden to ban Russian seafood has widespread support on Capitol Hill and in the U.S. seafood industry, but to ensure this ban is effective, strong traceability provisions must be adopted either legislatively or through further executive action.
Congress could pass the America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521), which includes provisions that would allow for full traceability for all seafood imports, including banned Russian products. And the Biden administration could complement its executive order and ensure the ban will have meaning by also announcing an expanded traceability system under SIMP.
We have a big opportunity before us, which merits thoughtful solutions. A successful ban on Russian seafood requires an effective seafood tracking system, and Congress and the administration both have the power to make that system a reality. Denying Russia a market for more than $1 billion worth of their seafood products is another way to stand with Ukraine that is needed now more than ever.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.