America's Fishing Industry Is Getting Caught Up in the Trade War

The American fishing industry is caught in the middle of the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China—hooked by tariffs imposed on both sides of the Pacific.

As a result, U.S. exports of seafood have fallen to their lowest levels in a decade. That’s in large part due to the tariffs that have made the industry “less competitive and less affordable,” according to a filing by the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group, to the International Trade Commission (USITC) ahead of a hearing scheduled to take place on Thursday. 

In prepared testimony for the hearing, the National Fisheries Institute alleges that trade disputes and subsequent waves of tariffs have eroded decades of growth for America’s commercial seafood industry, which is dominated by small family-owned fisheries. 

When the Trump administration imposed those tariffs in 2018, lawmakers from states with large fishing industries sounded the alarm but were ignored. “It has clearly rattled my state,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) said in a 2018 Senate hearing exchange with then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “​​Our seafood industry is the number one private industry in terms of the jobs and the economic opportunity it brings.” 

Tariffs on seafood have hit Alaska in particular, Alaska’s fishing industry generates over $5 billion dollars in economic activity and creates nearly 70,000 jobs in the state, making it a vital lifeline for the state. Over 40 percent of U.S.-caught Alaskan salmon and one-third of all seafood from Alaska is exported to China each year. Much of it is processed in China and then re-imported to the United States for sale in grocery stores. 

As the National Fisheries Institute points out, this split processing stream has contributed to rising seafood costs for U.S. consumers, as China’s retaliatory tariffs hit seafood when imported for processing and the original U.S. tariffs hit products upon their return to American shores.

Shipments of fish have consequently seen aggregate duty rates of upward of 45 percent in some cases. These costs are almost always passed along to consumers.

Regulators have, in the past, granted fisheries exclusions from tariffs for some specific re-imported fish products. Lately, though, regulators have refrained from offering broad exclusions to American-caught fish that’s been re-imported from China. 

That has come at the expense of American producers, who have seen Chinese processors pivot away from purchasing U.S.-caught fish, amounting to a $500 million loss in the export market. 

As one Alaska-based operator represented by the National Fisheries Institute, the Freezer Longline Coalition, explained in the filing, tariffs have “caused many FLC member company customers in the U.S., China and elsewhere … to refrain from the purchase of seafood from FLC member companies and other U.S. seafood harvesters.”

Tariffs on fish imported from China have caused some American importers to shift to Russian suppliers. Since 2014, imports of Russian-caught pollock and other fish have increased by 173 percent, with much of that increase coming in the aftermath of the China tariffs. 

For consumers, meanwhile, these costs are discouraging consumption of fish, according to a February study published by data analytics firms IRI and 210 Analytics. That month alone, sales of frozen seafood products decreased by 9.4 percent, while fresh seafood sales decreased by 12 percent. 

Tariffs contributed to seafood prices rising faster than overall inflation in recent months. And consumers are responding by buying less fish: Sales of seafood products have continuously dropped across the board, sparking more worries for the fishing industry as it struggles to compete.