Fishy business: After Russia invaded Ukraine, its seafood industry thrived

Observers say Russia’s seafood industry was not sanctioned quickly or harshly enough, especially during the onset of the war.

Russian salmon are displayed at a fish store, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Nemuro on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, April 11, 2022. Picture taken April 11, 2022. REUTERS/Daniel Leussink
Observers fear Russia is using profits made from its seafood industry to fund its war in Ukraine [Daniel Leussink/Reuters]

After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the West’s reaction was swift and decisive, with unanimous decisions by the European Union and the United States to support Ukraine and punish Russia with economic sanctions.

Two years on, the war continues while Russia’s economy remains resilient.

“Sanctions work. And there is hardly any alternative that would work more effectively. But they are not working at full capacity,” Agiya Zagrebelska, a department manager at the Ukrainian National Agency on Corruption Prevention, told Al Jazeera.

While parts of the Russian industry were sanctioned immediately, some important industries were not.

The Russian fishing industry was only partially blocked by Washington and marginally by the European bloc, which continues to import about  $1bn worth of seafood from its aggressive neighbour.

“Are the lives of a few hundred Ukrainians worth a crab or salmon?” said Zagrebelska.

Since February 2022, when the invasion started, the EU has passed 13 sanction packages on Russia targeting President Vladimir Putin and people close to him, Russian banks, media companies, political parties and paramilitary groups.

However, the European sanctions excluded most food products from Russia.

The bulk of Russia’s billion-dollar seafood business, such as Alaskan pollock or cod, kept flooding EU and US fish markets and restaurants.

The US included Russian seafood in sanctions in March 2022. And late last year, the government issued an executive order, taking additional steps by banning any Russian-origin seafood that had been incorporated or substantially transformed into another product in a third country.

The new sanctions aimed at closing loopholes.

With Russia was unable to export its seafood directly to the US, it sent ships to South Korea or China for processing.

According to Stephanie Madsen, the head of the US-based At-Sea Processors Association, Russian fish made it through EU and US borders ultimately in disguise, under another country’s label.

Madsen testified in front of the US Congress that Russian fish exports also directly funded Moscow’s war in Ukraine. In 2023, newly-added Russian fish export duties and $3.97bn from auctions distributing pollock and crab fishing quota reportedly went to support Putin’s warfare.

“The majority of American consumers do not support the war in Ukraine,” said Sally Yozell, the director of the environmental security programme at the Stimson Center, a think tank.

“I think they would feel very uncomfortable if they thought that their fish sticks that they’re eating at home or the [fish] sandwich that they’re eating at lunch was made up of Russian pollock that was supporting the Russian regime in its war against Ukraine.”

Fish laundering

Even if fish sanctions are in place, ensuring the fish does not enter European or US markets can be difficult because seafood is not always easily traceable.

One representative from the Environmental Justice Foundation, a United Kingdom NGO, said that “many EU member states do very little verification of seafood imports, providing opportunities for the products of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to enter the EU market”.

Yozell said, regarding the US system, that mandatory catch licenses showing where the fish is coming from are easily manipulable PDF files.

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

That means that even in the US, where Russian seafood is directly banned, the fish served in restaurants or sold in supermarkets might be supporting the Russian economy.

The result is that the EU imports about 740,000 tonnes 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, said Guus Pastoor, the president of the EU Fish Processors and Traders Association (AIPCE).

In 2022, Russia ramped up its fish exports to the EU – despite tensions over the war in Ukraine, Russia’s Kommersant daily reported, citing trade data. Volumes increased by 18 percent that year, and by another 13 percent in 2023, reaching an all-time high.

Before reaching Western markets, many Russian catches make a pit stop at the Busan harbour in South Korea, one of the world’s biggest shipping ports.

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the port has seen significant increases in Russian seafood.

Data obtained for this investigation, in part from the Environmental Justice Foundation, shows that the Russian side of the harbour has been busier than ever.

The numbers are staggering. For example, in 2021, no halibut – a highly-priced white-fleshed fish often caught in the Russian/Norwegian Barents Sea – was brought into the Busan harbour by Russian vessels.

But in 2023, after the war started, the harbour imported more than 11,000 tonnes.

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

In 2023, South Korea imported 213,000 tonnes of seafood from Russia, compared with 439,000 in 2022 and 185,000 in 2020.

Korean exports of fish to Europe and the US surged. From 2021 to 2022, exports of frozen herring to the US increased by 99 percent, while fillet exports to Germany skyrocketed by 541 percent.

For most of the war, as well as being exempt from sanctions, Russian seafood producers enjoyed some privileges. Some fish arrived in the EU free of duties or at a reduced tariff.

In January 2024, the Council of the European Union ended these perks.

But not everyone was happy about the increased tariffs on Russian fish.

“This, of course, will mean that the price [of fish] will go up because these tariffs are calculated into the final price for the consumer,” said Guus Pastoor, the president of the EU Fish Processors and Traders Association. “We understand the political reasons behind this but we think it sets a dangerous precedent.”

Back in Ukraine, Zagrebelska is working around the clock to campaign for stricter sanctions.

“Until 2014, I thought that freedom and basic rights were what we had by default. Today, every Ukrainian knows that freedom is something to be won and defended.”

This article was developed in cooperation with Aktuálně.cz and Kringvarp Føroya in the Faroe Islands with the support of Journalismfund Europe.

Source: Al Jazeera