Opinion: Secretary Blinken, protect Alaska’s fisheries

Perhaps no group of Alaskans has been impacted more severely by the global economic collapse than our fishers and processors

  • Wednesday, March 17, 2021 3:45pm
  • Opinion
Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at an Anchorage news conference on Dec. 11, 2020. (Courtesy photo / Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at an Anchorage news conference on Dec. 11, 2020. (Courtesy photo / Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy)

Editor’s note: The Empire does not normally publish letters addressed to third parties. However, an exception has been made in this instance due to timeliness and news value.

Dear Secretary of State Blinken,

In light of your imminent meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska, I write to impress upon you the international challenges faced by our commercial fishing industry.

Perhaps no group of Alaskans has been impacted more severely by the global economic collapse than our fishers and processors. Both coped admirably with the logistical challenges of running businesses that rely on the free movement of labor, but neither escaped the pain of demand shock that rippled outward from shuttered restaurants, reductions in consumer spending, and the partial collapse of many export markets.

However, not all of the industries’ woes can be traced back to the pandemic. Many are preexisting conditions stemming from hostile decisions made by China and Russia during the previous decade.

In July 2018, China’s government imposed retaliatory tariffs on Alaska seafood, decimating our market share in the world’s largest and fastest-growing seafood market. Today, these tariffs have reached an outrageous 30-40% on top of several extreme and unproven COVID-mitigation measures intended to slow the importation of Alaska seafood.

As the rest of the world benefits from China’s skyrocketing demand for seafood, Alaska’s seafood exports to China have declined from nearly $1 billion in 2017 to only $520 million in 2020. In a small population state like Alaska, the loss of nearly half-a-billion dollars in exports cannot be understated. Even products that are exempt from Chinese tariffs, such as Alaska seafood that is processed in China and then reimported to America, have been heavily impacted by importers’ unwillingness to deal with Alaska products.

While I await your response to my recent request to meet in person, I respectfully ask that you raise this critical issue to the Chinese delegation. The United States must insist on a blanket exclusion from retaliatory tariffs for all U.S. seafood products.

I also draw your attention to an equally pressing matter: the Russian embargo on Alaska seafood. Prior to 2014, Russia was Alaska’s second-largest market for salmon roe behind Japan. The existence of two large markets for this fairly niche product, not only generated some $61 million in sales, but positively impacted the price of pink salmon. This ended when Russia chose to retaliate for sanctions imposed as a result of their aggression in Ukraine.

The ensuing damage has gone far beyond our ability to export salmon roe. Since the embargo, Russia has engaged in wholesale dumping of seafood on American markets. From 2014 to 2019, Russian seafood exports to America increased from $229 million to $698 million. Worse, $300 million of those exports are species that Alaska and Russia compete to harvest. For example, halibut, a fish that is not consumed in Russia or China, has recently become heavily fished by these same nations. Both utilize shady tactics to obscure the origin of their products and evade U.S. tariffs.

I urge you to take action, if not for the benefit of Alaskan fishers, then for the security of our nation. As you are no doubt aware, the trade barriers we face in Alaska are a preamble to larger battle for the Arctic. Last year, Alaska fishing vessels were forced out of American waters at the insistence of Russian warships. That’s on top of 26 penetrations of the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone in 2020 and the reactivation of 50 Soviet-era installations. For the very first time, Russian LNG tankers are now making their way out of the Arctic and down Alaska’s coast in the dead of winter.

For its part, China’s efforts to designate itself as a “near Arctic” nation are well underway with the development of a nuclear icebreaking fleet. Their Polar Silk Road initiative aims to establish ownership over the trans-polar routes that are expected to emerge in coming years.

It’s imperative that the Biden administration stand up to our neighbors across the Pacific. As America’s Arctic, Alaska has unwillingly been drawn into this proxy battle, and it’s our seafood industry who finds themselves on the frontlines. Russia and China cannot be allowed to ice Alaska out of international markets as they ravage our shared seas.

In the meantime, I respectfully request that the U.S. Trade Representative open an investigation into the harmful trade practices of Russia and China and issue findings in Alaska’s favor. Last year, the USDA was able to provide some $530 million in aid to American seafood businesses, and it’s my hope that such assistance will continue under your watch.

Alaskans have suffered enough. As the producer of some 60% of our nation’s seafood, it’s essential that Alaska’s seafood industry be shielded from these international trade battles. I call on the Biden administration to do everything in their power to defend the interests of Alaska.

• Mike Dunleavy is the 12th governor of Alaska. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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