Russian fish and seafood still end up in Western markets in spite of sanctions

Russian vessels download their catches in Korea and China for repackaging.

Following the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the West immediately responded with unprecedented economic sanctions on the aggressor. While the sanctions definitely work, the Russian economy displays a surprising resilience after two years of war.

One major reason is that there are significant loopholes that allow Moscow to avoid sanctions and reduce the efficiency of the sanctions policy.

One sector that remains largely unaffected by sanctions is the fish and seafood industry, whose proceeds are used to finance the war in Ukraine. According to a joint investigation by the Czech outlet Aktuálně.cz and Kringvarp Føroya in the Faroe Islands, the Russian fishing industry only faced partial restrictions from Washington and minimal hindrances from Brussels, continuing to supply approximately $1.1 billion worth of seafood to European markets alone.

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Since February 2022, the EU has enacted 13 rounds of sanctions against Russia, targeting various entities including President Vladimir Putin and his associates, financial institutions, media outlets, political factions, and paramilitary groups.

However, food products from Russia remained almost untouched by European sanctions, enabling the substantial influx of Russian seafood, such as Alaskan pollock, herring, King crab, and cod, into E.U. and U.S. markets.

The United States eventually included Russian seafood in its sanctions in March 2022, further bolstered by an executive order later that year aimed at closing loopholes that allowed Russian seafood to enter American markets through third-party countries like South Korea or China.

Stephanie Madsen, head of the US-based At-Sea Processors Association, testified before the US Congress that Russian fish exports directly funded Moscow's military actions in Ukraine. Additionally, proceeds from Russian fish exports, including newly implemented export duties and revenue from fishing quota auctions, reportedly contributed $3.97 billion from auctions distributing pollock and crab fishing quota to support Putin's wartime endeavors, the investigation says.

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Despite efforts to curb the influx of Russian seafood, loopholes persist. The complexity of seafood supply chains makes it challenging to track and enforce sanctions effectively. In the E.U., lax verification of seafood imports provides avenues for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing products to enter the market.

Similarly, the U.S. has been monitoring illegally-harvested seafood that enters the US market through the Seafood Import Monitoring Program since 2018, but this scheme only focuses on 13 species and does not include some of Russian seafood that enters America like pollock and halibut.

The E.U., on the other hand, imported last year about 740,000 tons of Alaskan pollock, a third of which comes directly from Russia, while another third gets it from China, of which 95 percent is of Russian origin, Guus Pastoor, head of the EU Fish Processors and Traders Association, said for the article.

Consequently, even with direct bans on Russian seafood imports, products indirectly sourced from Russia continue to infiltrate Western markets, mainly via China and South Korea, where these products undergo repackaging under different brands and flags.

Data analyzed by the journalists reveals a surge in Russian seafood imports at the South Korean harbor Busan since the onset of the Ukraine war, with significant quantities subsequently making their way to Western markets.

In 2022, in spite of tensions over Ukraine, Russia ramped up its fish exports to the E.U. Russian statistics show. Volumes increased by 18%, and by another 13% in 2023.

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the Busan port has seen significant increases in Russian seafood, with the Russian side of the harbor being busier than ever.

Compare the numbers: in 2021, for example, no halibut – a highly-priced white-fleshed fish often caught in the Barents Sea – was brought into the Busan harbor by Russian vessels. But in 2023, at least 11,000 tons was downloaded there.

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While some of that fish might end up in the South Korean market, too, halibut exports from Korea to the U.S. and China increased significantly in the same year.

In 2023, South Korea imported 213,000 tons of seafood from Russia, compared with 439,000 in 2022 and 185,000 in 2020. But Korean exports of fish to Europe and America surged: from 2021 to 2022, exports of frozen herring to the U.S. increased by 99%, while fillet exports to Germany skyrocketed by 541%.

In response to mounting pressure, the E.U. recently revoked trade privileges for Russian seafood producers, imposing tariffs that are likely to increase consumer prices and set precedents for future trade practices.

Ukraine insists on a new international fish monitoring system and a total ban on Russian seafood.

The investigation was supported financially by the JournalismFund, an independent nonprofit facilitating investigative cross-border journalism.

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