As new rounds of economic penalties against Russia make critical species like cod and crab more difficult to come by, the global seafood sector is bracing for price rises, supply interruptions, and probable job losses.
Bans on seafood, beer, and diamond imports are among the latest measures taken by the US to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The United States is also depriving Russia of its “most favored nation” designation. Similar efforts are being taken by countries all across the world.
According to a 2020 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Russia is one of the world’s top seafood producers and the fifth-largest producer of wild-caught fish. Russia is not one of the top seafood exporters to the United States, but it is the global leader in cod exports (the preference for fish and chips in the U.S.). It’s also a big supply of crabs and Alaska pollock, both of which are commonly found in fast-food sandwiches and processed fish sticks.
Globally, as well as in regions with working waterfronts, the influence is expected to be seen. Maine is one of them, according to government figures, where more than $50 million in Russian seafood goods flowed through Portland in 2021.
“It’s going to be an issue if you’re receiving cod from Russia,” said Glen Libby, owner of Port Clyde Fresh Catch in Tenants Harbor, Maine. “Wow, that’s a shambles.” We’ll see how things go.”
According to census statistics, Russia shipped more than 28 million pounds (12.7 million kilograms) of cod to the United States from January 1, 2020, to January 31, 2022.
Both the European Union and the United Kingdom rely heavily on Russian seafood. And fish prices are already rising in Japan, a big seafood consumer who is restricting trade with Russia.
Shop owners and customers in the United Kingdom, where fish and chips is a cultural icon, are bracing for price increases. High energy costs and growing food prices were already putting a strain on British fish and chip restaurants.
Even before the war, Andrew Crook, the head of the National Federation of Fish Friers, predicted that a third of Britain’s fish and chip restaurants would go out of business. “We’re in extremely terrible problems” if seafood prices rise considerably further, he added.
The United Kingdom put a 35 percent levy on Russian whitefish, including chip-shop mainstays cod and haddock, in mid-March.
He told ITV that “we’re a major part of UK culture and it would be a tragedy to see that leave.”
Consumers in the United States are most likely to notice the impact of sanctions on fish prices and availability, according to Kanae Tokunaga, director of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Coastal and Marine Economics Lab in Portland.
“Because seafood is a worldwide commodity, you will see the price increase even if it is not harvested in Russia,” Tokunaga added.
The United States’ reliance on imported cod derives from the collapse of its once-vibrant Atlantic cod fishery due to overfishing and environmental factors. In the early 1980s, American fisherman, especially from New England, took in more than 100 million pounds (45.4 million kilograms) of cod every year, but the catch in 2020 was fewer than 2 million pounds (900,000 kilograms).
Regulators have attempted to salvage the fishery by using management measures such as extremely low fishing limits, and many fishermen pursuing other East Coast groundfish species such as haddock and flounder have abandoned cod entirely.
Massachusetts seafood processors are concerned about job losses as a result of the loss of Russian products, according to Democratic U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who supports sanctions on Russia.
“I’ve heard from seafood processors in my home state who are concerned about the possible impact of a fresh, immediate import restriction on their workforce, which includes hundreds of union members in the seafood processing business,” he said on the Senate floor in February.
The shortage of Russian cod might force American seafood companies to turn to alternative foreign suppliers, according to Walt Golet, a research assistant professor at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.
“We might be able to bring in a bit more from Norwegian fisheries, and a little more from Canadian fisheries,” Golet said. “The price of those goods is actually driving it.”
Producers and consumers might instead try underused domestic fish species like Atlantic pollock and redfish, according to Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
“Perhaps now is the time to utilize haddock, hake, or monkfish, something unusual,” Martens said. “If it disrupts supply systems, it creates an opportunity for other species to step in and fill the hole.”