Alaska seafood leaders talk tariffs, competition from Russia and Canada

Mark Begich, Alaska’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, made a cameo at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s All Hands on Deck meeting in Anchorage this week.

“If you want to be successful, you’ve got to put money behind it and market the product,” Begich said in support of the ASMI mission during opening remarks on Monday, Oct. 29.

Despite the too-close-to-call governor’s race, tariffs are the leading topic at the meeting this week.

Alaska’s seafood industry enjoyed a record export total in 2017 of more than 1 billion pounds of seafood with expectations that the trend would continue. However, the complex matrix of Alaska seafood’s global markets and international processing was further complicated by the implementation of several new layers of export and import tariffs on varying products.

Alaska’s proximity to China has long allowed a significant portion of the head and gut fleets’ harvest to be exported to China for final processing and reimportation to the domestic market.

The export and import tariffs threatened this movement of raw and retail-ready product between the two nations. Alaska lobbied to ease the tariff restrictions on its product and eventually was granted dispensation for the primary Alaska exports of H&G cod and salmon. However, the tariffs still apply to fishmeal, live and fresh products.

As species committees met on Monday afternoon, members discussed ways that ASMI could help industry cope with these market shifts.

“Some people brought up Buy American, Product of USA, once-frozen,” said Mike Cusack, chairman of the Whitefish Committee. “Is there an opportunity to create more once-frozen products here in the United States? We’re going to deal with the tariffs, but let’s find a silver lining here.”

Both pollock and Pacific cod face challenges from Russia’s fleet.

“Russian supply is the primary competition” for Alaska pollock, said Garrett Evridge with McDowell Group. “It could be at a peak this year.”

The Russian harvest of Pacific cod is also trending higher — contributing a third of P-cod production, last year, up from about 20 percent, according to Evridge.

Alaska halibut, on the other hand, faces stiff competition from the availability of East Coast Canadian halibut, which is available fresh year-round.

“The Domestic Marketing Committee can help us maintain our diminishing market share on the East Coast,” said Peggy Parker, chairwoman of the Halibut and Sablefish Committee.

Alaska halibut has two distinct sustainability advantages over East Coast halibut, “achieved in part by closing the fishery during the halibut spawning period,” said Parker. “The Pacific halibut resource has never been overfished.”

Alaska salmon processing continues to trend away from canned toward fresh and frozen products. However, the “lack of reliable airlift out of Alaska” is an ongoing concern for processors, according to Salmon Committee Chairman John Daly.

Prices for salmon are holding strong, despite a year over year 5 percent increase in the production of farmed salmon. Evridge reported that Alaska provided about 30 percent of wild salmon around the globe in 2017.

Alaska’s stakeholders continue to monitor and make moves for market access. The shifting landscape of global markets and tariffs has made 2018 a year to watch.

About the author

Jessica Hathaway

Jessica Hathaway is the editor in chief of National Fisherman. She has been covering the fishing industry for 13 years, serves on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s Communications Committee and is a National Fisheries Conservation Center board member.

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