The recent U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control ban on the importation of Chinese seafood that originates from Russia promises to crimp the cash funding Russia’s war against Ukraine. In less than 60 days, the hope is that the United States and other countries will adapt labeling and procedures that establish clarity on country of origin, presumably shutting down the seafood pipeline coming out of Russia.
That’s the ethical-geopolitical side of it.
The so-called Seafood Determination issued Dec. 22, 2023 expands the March 2022 federal ban on importation into the U.S. of seafood and other products of Russian origin to include salmon, cod, pollock and crab harvested in Russian waters or by Russian vessels, and processed in another country.
Though language in the federal sanction has been generalized to include any third-party countries reprocessing Russian seafood products for distribution into the United States, the main country of concern is China and the predominant fish species is Bering Sea pollock, a mainstay commodity among whitefish consumers worldwide.
When it comes to the fisheries, Alaska and Russia catch the vast majority of the world’s pollock.
From the seafood marketing angle, Alaska-caught pollock stands to see wild gains in demand because the ban will reduce volumes of lower quality, lower priced products flooding global markets. Within the whitefish world, pollock arrive in two forms: once-frozen blocks of fillets or surimi caught by U.S. trawlers and processed in the United States, and Russian product, frozen at sea, then shipped to China where it is thawed, reprocessed into various product forms, then refrozen and distributed in the United States and other countries, mainly in Europe.
According to recent data from the Association of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP), a Seattle-based organization representing the Bering Sea pollock fleet, twice frozen and reprocessed pollock comprise around 40 percent of the pollock products in the world market. In terms of volume, the United States imported 33,400 metric tons of fillets and fillet blocks from China in 2022, which is up from 27,600 metric tons of 2021, and the European Union imported 120,750 metric tons in 2022. U.S. production as of October 2023 stood at 156,068 metric tons.
“What’s happened with this unbelievable growth in their exports to China, and then China’s exports of that product around the world, is that consumers are just getting more and more of this low-quality product.” says Craig Morris, CEO of GAPP.
There’s a danger in that, if you ask Morris, as the surge in low quality product flooding the market can turn first-time consumers south on the taste of pollock if they don’t know the difference in quality between once and twice frozen.
“That twice-frozen product, by carrying the same name (Alaska pollock), really confuses consumers, because if you have a bad experience with a pollock product, you don’t think that it was because it was twice frozen,” Morris says. “You just think pollock is inconsistent.”
Several years ago, Alaska and Russia worked as allies in the expansion of once-frozen product into the global market.
“From the outset we - I’m not going to say we celebrated - but we were certainly not opposed to the modernization of the Russian fleet because United States and Russia are basically the only two countries that catch any Alaska pollock or pollock to any scale,” says Morris. “So when they were modernizing their fleet, moving toward once-frozen product, we actually were very supportive of that because that would mean that the global supply of product would be of higher quality.”
That all changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“The Russian once-frozen product we really saw as constructive for the global market, but with the war now in Ukraine we obviously have to temper that because we don’t want U.S. dollars, or frankly global dollars, going basically to fund this war,” says Morris.
In the meantime, the folks at GAPP retained third-party analysts to conduct marketing studies that measure the relationship between purchasing habits and country of origin among consumers in the United States and in Europe.
In a study focused on the domestic market, millennials emerged as the predominant demographic among consumers, and sustainability was key among food sourced from anywhere. Country of origin ranked strongly as well, with an overall preference for seafood sourced from Alaska or Canada. The flip side of the study noted that participants would feel “confused, misled and annoyed” to find that their Alaska pollock actually came from Russia via reprocessing and importation to the United States from China.
Another study, released in October, surveyed 1,600 consumers in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain and found that the majority of whitefish consumers care about country of origin and that they tend to avoid fish sourced from Russia or China. Other facets of the study found that European buyers, mostly in the U.K. and Spain, inherently believe that when they purchase pollock products, the pollock has been caught in Alaska. Survey participants also reported that they would feel misled to find out that the pollock they’re eating came ultimately from Russia
In France, 80 percent of those interviewed said that knowing the country of origin drives their purchases of pollock products, and 70 percent noted that they actively seek out information verifying country of origin in their purchases. At the same time, 50 percent of consumers in France, Spain and Germany actively avoid purchasing fish sourced from China with around 40 percent avoiding fish sourced from Russia.
Opposition to the invasion of Ukraine (an average of about 30 percent for the four countries) ranked top among top reasons to avoid fish sourced from Russia, but distrust in quality standards pertaining to chemicals and other quality controls weighed in too. Pollution concerns over food transportation distances, meanwhile, weighed in among top concerns to avoid fish sourced from China.
Overall, European consumers believe that Alaska pollock comes from Alaska, like its name implies, and an average 82 percent of the 1,600 participants prefer to source their pollock from Alaska.
The popularity of Alaska pollock in global markets will likely continue to grow as the United States and other countries band together to ascertain that the fish have been caught and processed by U.S. vessels in the Bering Sea.
“It’s an opportunity that’s been handed to us,” says Morris, “and we have to do our best to use this opportunity to convey the superior attributes of once-frozen Alaska pollock.”