Alaska fishing advocates ask Congress to ban Russian seafood imports

U.S. economic sanctions against Russia over Ukraine may wind up helping the Alaskan fishing industry.

At least that’s the hope of those promoting “Just Say Nyet,” a petition intended to get Congress to ban Russian seafood imports.

Organizers cite Russia’s possible involvement in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine on July 17, and Russian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war as reasons to boycott Russian seafood.

The website features a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a giant pike. Kremlin aides have said he caught the freshwater fish in a lake in Siberia, not the Gulf of Alaska.

The Obama administration and the European Union have ratcheted up sanctions against Moscow for its interference in Ukraine, imposing four rounds of travel bans and asset freezes since March against individuals, banks, oil companies, arms suppliers and other institutions. Fish have yet to make the list.


The U.S. imported $327 million in fish, crab and other seafood from Russia in 2013, less than 2% of total U.S. fishery imports, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It just seemed so logical that we ought to do this ‘Nyet to Putin’ kind of thing and try to hit the [Russian] fishing industry not only to hurt them, but to also help our fisheries,” said George J. Hochbrueckner, a former Democratic member of Congress from New York, who is the campaign spokesman.

The week-old effort has yet to gain traction: The online petition on Wednesday had just 14 supporters, the Twitter page had six followers and the Facebook page had four likes.

The website asks consumers to contact U.S. fish processing and frozen food companies to say they will purchase only U.S. fish.

At least one company on the list, SeaPak Shrimp and Seafood Co., says it’s a mistake. Dwight Gram, a spokesman for SeaPak and its parent company, Rich Products, a privately held, multinational food products corporation based in Buffalo, N.Y., said neither SeaPak nor Rich imported fish from Russia.

Gram said Rich’s corporate office had asked Hochbrueckner to remove its name from the website.

The campaign is the latest of several proposed anti-Russian boycotts that have sprung up since the crisis in Ukraine erupted in the spring. They are hampered by the relative paucity of U.S. trade with Russia.

Critics have urged consumers to boycott Lukoil, the Russian oil giant that operates more than 500 gas stations in the northeast U.S. Protests were staged in the spring in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Some critics also have urged viewers to boycott RT, a Moscow English-language channel that the State Department has called a propaganda outlet for the Russian government. Few Americans watch it anyway.

The “Just Say Nyet” campaign has an unusual focus: the Alaska pollock, which forms a major part of the commercial catch in the Gulf of Alaska. U.S. boats haul in about 1.5 million tons each year.

The Food and Drug Administration uses Alaska pollock as the market name for Theragra chalcogramma, a fish that is not a pollock but a cod.

Russia uses the same name for the cod it catches in its own waters, including parts of the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. And Russia sells its catch for less money than U.S. fishermen do.

“We’re highly regulated, they’re not,” Hochbrueckner said. As a result, he argued, “the Russians end up selling at a lower price, but they can call it ‘Alaska pollock.’”

Pat Shanahan, program director for Genuine Alaska Pollock, a trade association, says Americans are more likely to purchase seafood if they think it is from Alaska.

“Consumers do care where their fish is from,” she said. “I get emails because they’ve found products that are substandard. They want pollock that’s from Alaska, and they’re confused about why it says Alaska pollock” if it’s not.