Alaska’s seafood industry is in trouble. Processors and policy makers blame Russia.

boats unload at processing plants
Boats unload at the countless processing plants on the Kodiak shore. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Alaskan waters produce the most seafood in the country, and many of the state’s coastal communities depend on commercial fishing to support their economies.

But Alaska’s fisheries are now facing a massive economic crisis, with policymakers increasingly blaming flooded global markets. The private sector and federal policymakers are teaming up to try to stop the bleeding.

Last year was brutal for the seafood industry. Processors and fishermen alike suffered amid rising prices and blamed Russia for flooding the markets. Republican US Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska pointed the finger at the country at a May 23 press conference.

“The Russians have essentially admitted that they’re not just at war in Ukraine, they’re at war with the American fishing industry,” he said.

Alaska’s other federal delegates, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola, shared similar sentiments at ComFish, a fishing expo in Kodiak.

The US and Russia have been fighting over seafood trade for years.

Recent highlights include a Russian ban on US goods in 2014.

The US government didn’t put its own ban on Russian goods until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Despite that embargo, there was a loophole in U.S. restrictions, at least for seafood. Fish caught in Russia processed in third countries, namely China, could still be sold on American markets.

That lasted until the end of last year. Then, amid intense lobbying by the US seafood industry, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that finally closed the loophole and any chance of Russian fish reaching America.

The move could boost demand for Alaskan fish in the U.S., but America is only one of three major markets for Alaskan seafood — it’s sold all over the world.

boats in a harbor
Many types of fish can be harvested around Alaska, such as cod, halibut, salmon and pollock, as well as shellfish such as king crab and tanner crab. Anglers often target several species over the course of a year. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

“It’s like a balloon — and so when you push in one area, you get a reaction in another area,” said John Sackton, founder of the online trade publication SeafoodNews.

Japan and European countries are also major markets for Alaskan fish, and Sackton said they still allow seafood imports from Russia.

Alaska pollock is the largest US fishery by volume, and prices for this species took a major hit last year. Sackton said that’s partly because Russia has started selling surimi, a paste made from pollock, to Japanese markets at low prices.

“So all of a sudden, surimi prices crashed,” he said. “And now the surimi market in Japan, which was a mainstay of Alaska, is now mainly Russian pollock.”

He said a similar story had played out in Europe and had led to lower pollock fillet prices.

This has caused major problems for Alaskan seafood processors. Sackton said that unless Europe and Japan impose their own bans, the continued sale of Russian fish in those markets will likely lessen the impact of the recent action by the Biden administration.

“This is a sign that there is a lot of pain in the industry,” Sackton said. “And so banning pollock — lobbying to ban pollock — was a short-term benefit. People probably had no choice but to try to get any short-term benefits, but it’s not going to change the overall dynamic.”

Senator Sullivan recently met with US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, whose department regulates the US fishing industry. He is lobbying the Biden administration to persuade a group of foreign allies known as the G7 to establish their own bans.

“There is a meeting of the G7 leaders in the next three weeks,” Sullivan said. “We’ve covered the language of what we think it would be good for leaders to agree on, and I’ll end with that — the key is really follow through.”

The G7, or Group of Seven, consists of the US and six other major economies from around the world, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. The European Union is what is called a “non-enumerated member”.

The industry slowdown has had major consequences for seafood companies. Trident Seafoods, the largest processing business in the United States, announced last year that it would sell about a third of its factories in Alaska, in part because it said competition from Russian-sourced seafood was tough.

boats in a harbor
One of the facilities that Trident has put up for sale is the Star of Kodiak plant, the largest plant in the city of the same name. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

But a Trident subsidiary in Europe is still buying Russian fish that its executives say undercuts Alaskan seafood prices. That’s according to a recent report by Undercurrent News, a trade publication.

Trident chief executive Joe Bundrant was also at Sullivan’s press call. He said that while he would prefer to support the fishing fleet that sells to the company’s processing plants in Alaska, Trident cannot squeeze margins enough to compete with Russian production.

“Our mission every day is to wake up and bring value to Alaska’s wild seafood, and it pains me a lot to make this decision,” Bundrant said. “But until there is support from the G7 countries, it is an economic necessity for survival.”

Bundrant said that in some cases, Russian pollock is being sold for as much as $1,000 a tonne less than Trident can produce.

Market pressure has even caused at least one company, Peter Pan Seafoods, to close indefinitely.

Seafood companies and fishermen often target multiple species to reduce their risk, but the current collapse in prices is almost universal.

Pink salmon sold at the docks for just 24 cents per kilogram in the regions on average in 2023. That’s about half of what fishermen were paid in 2022, according to state data.

Bristol Bay sockeye sold at the docks for 50 cents a pound last year – the lowest price paid in decades when adjusted for inflation. did not respond to a request for comment. The company also expects to pay $1.10 per pound for chilled fish, with more bonuses for bleeding before selling it to the processor.

The announcement is several months ahead of when processors typically announce late summer salmon prices.

Citing recent news reports, Senator Sullivan argues that Russian fish sell for so little in part because that country and China use forced labor in their processing facilities.

“That’s what we have to compete against,” he said. “We should be promoting high standards globally, not allowing a race to the bottom.”

The senator’s staff also confirmed that he has been in contact with officials in Japan and the European Union to push for a ban on Russian seafood. His staff did not have an estimate of how long it would take to convince other nations to establish bans.

Sullivan said he hopes to include fisheries-related provisions in the upcoming federal farm bill renewal to provide more stability for the industry — a goal shared by all of Alaska’s congressional delegations.