Trump’s trade war now includes tariffs on seafood going to and from China.
China is Alaska’s biggest seafood buyer, purchasing 54 percent of Alaska seafood exports last year valued at $1.3 billion. On July 6 a 25 percent tariff went into effect on U.S. imports to China, including all Alaska salmon, pollock, cod, herring, flatfish, Dungeness crab, sablefish, geoduck clams and more. Then on July 11 Trump added a 10 percent tariff on all seafood sent from China to the U.S. According to market expert John Sackton of Seafoodnews.com, it includes products that are reprocessed in China and sent back for distribution in this country.
The total value of the 291 seafood products China sends to the U.S. each year is $2.75 billion. Sackton called the 10 percent tariff “a $275 million dollar direct tax on Americans.”
It will hit 70 percent of imports of frozen cod fillets. Likewise, 23 percent of all frozen salmon fillets come into the U.S. from China, including pink salmon that is reprocessed into salmon burgers and fillets. Trade data show that China represents 47 percent of U.S. breaded shrimp imports and 37 percent of frozen squid imports. China also supplies 20 percent of the U.S. frozen scallop market.
Sackton said the economic hit will go far beyond the $275 million consumer tax.
“As sellers are forced to raise prices, competitive products from other countries will follow suit resulting in across the board seafood price increases. That will discourage seafood buying so sellers will lose business as customers back away,” he added.
China has been the fastest growing global market for high-end seafood. Last month Gov. Bill Walker led a trade mission to China with several Alaska seafood companies which have spent millions to expand their brand even more.
“All this money will go up in smoke,” Sackton said.
In recent years, Alaska seafood sales to China have increased by millions of dollars through eCommerce activity, said Hannah Lindoff, international program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Lindhoff said ASMI will try to expand sales to other markets, such as Brazil, Spain and Ukraine. But, as Sackton points out, it is more expensive to mount campaigns in multiple countries than in a single large market like China. ASMI operates on a shoestring international budget of less than $7 million a year, mostly from grants and federal dollars. Its overall budget is about $22 million, nearly all from processor taxes. Trump’s seafood tariffs come at a time when the Alaska legislature has zeroed out the state’s $1 million dollar contribution to ASMI.
Compare that to Norway’s more than $50 million marketing budget from a small tax on its seafood exports. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported on Thursday that “scant” American fish or shellfish was for sale at Jingshen, Beijing’s largest wholesale seafood market which supplies restaurants and grocers across China. Several distributors said that the recent 25 percent tariff has made American seafood unaffordable.
Unless Congress intervenes, the additional 10 percent will take effect in September. Alaska’s delegation has yet to comment.
Gearing up for crab
Boats already are signing up to participate in fall Bering Sea crab fisheries that begin Oct. 1. Meanwhile, many crabbers are still awaiting word on what their payouts are for last season.
Prior to the crab fisheries changing from “come one, come all” to a catch share form of management in 2005, prices were set before boats headed out, said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange which negotiates prices for most of the fleet.
“Since then the price is based on the historical division of revenues and there is a formula that is applied to sales. It takes a long time for sales to be completed to the point where we know or can predict what the final wholesale prices will be, and then we can apply the formula to it,” he explained.
Prices to fishermen were down a bit from last year but historically very high, Jacobsen said. For snow crab and bairdi Tanners, which typically are hauled up after the start of each year, prices were just settled and won’t be made public for another week.
“Most of the snow crab and bairdi prices were over $4 a pound, so that’s very good,” he hinted.
According to processor data, last season’s average snow crab price was $4.07 a pound; Tanner crab averaged $3.33. For golden king crab, fishermen averaged $5.51 per pound.
For Bristol Bay red king crab, the price averaged $9.20 a pound last year, down from the record $10.18 in 2016.
Heading into the fall, Jacobsen said the price outlook is good.
“We expect king crab to be very high this year. There is quite a bit of demand throughout the world and it’s in short supply,” he said, adding that a huge reduction in illegally caught crab imports from Russia has helped boost the market for Alaska crab.
Right now stakeholders are “on pins and needles” that crab stock surveys underway now will yield good news for the 2018/2019 crab catches, which have been on a downward trend for several years.
“Based on last year’s surveys it looks like we might have another decline in snow crab and we’re not sure about red king crab as it was kind of on the margin last year,” Jacobsen said. “With Tanners, we never know. If we can get some good quotas it should be a good year.”
Last season’s catch limit for Bristol Bay red king crab was 6.6 million pounds, down 20 percent. For golden king crab the quota has remained stable at 6.3 million pounds. The snow crab catch quota at 19 million pounds was a 12 percent decline. For bairdi Tanners, a catch of just 2.5 million pounds was down from over 20 million pounds two years prior.
The combined value of the 2017/2018 Bering Sea crab fisheries was nearly $190 million at the Alaska docks.
The first thing any fisherman wants to know is what he’s getting paid for his catch.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides dock prices for nearly every fish species with comparisons going back to 1984 in its Commercial Operator’s Annual Report (COAR) compiled from inputs by Alaska processors.
Here’s a sampler of some of the average prices from 2017:
The price for cod was 32 cents per pound, an increase of 4 cents from 2016. The ling cod price averaged $1.88, up 33 cents.
Those 3 billion pounds of Alaska pollock fetched 12 cents a pound for fishermen, down a penny. Herring also dropped a penny to 11 cents.
Octopus averaged 60 cents a pound, a 14 cent increase; sea cucumbers fetched $5.02, up nearly a dollar.
For 11 types of flounders, pesky arrowtooth increased 3 cents to 10 cents a pound; rex sole held as the priciest flat fish at 34 cents. Alaska plaice was the cheapest at 3 cents a pound.
For 20 types of rockfish, yellow eye (red snapper) topped the list at $1.49, up 20 cents.
Geoduck clams paid out at $6.27, down 32 cents. Longnose skates fetched 49 cents, up a nickel.
Halibut averaged $6.25, an increase of 19 cents a pound. Sablefish averaged $7.36 compared to $6.50 the year before.
Sockeye salmon averaged $1.26, up 20 cents. Chinook at $5.73 increased from $4.88; cohos at $1.23 were up a nickel, chums at 70 cents increased by 8 cents, and pinks at 36 cents a pound dropped a penny.
The priciest Alaska catch was spot shrimp paying out at $9.32, up 36 cents. Sculpins were the cheapest at one penny a pound.
Another report shows how much each fishery produced and what processors sold it for.
Alaska pollock topped them all with 1.3 billion pounds processed for a first wholesale value of $1.5 billion.
Sockeye salmon was second at nearly $790 million for 208 million pounds.
Why should all Alaskans care about fish prices? With annual catches coming in at 5 to 6 billion pounds per year, adding just one penny per pound to the total catch makes a difference of nearly one million dollars in landing taxes for the state and local governments each.
• Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally.