Suspicious business: after Russia invaded Ukraine, its fishing industry prospered | Russia-Ukraine War News


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 later, the war continues while the Russian economy remains resilient.

“Sanctions work. And there is almost no alternative that works more effectively. But they are not working at full capacity,” Agiya Zagrebelska, department director at the National Agency of Ukraine for the Prevention of Corruption, told Al Jazeera.

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

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

“Is the life of a few hundred Ukrainians worth more than a crab or a salmon?” Zagrebelska said.

Since February 2022, when the invasion began, the EU has approved 13 packages of sanctions against Russia targeting President Vladimir Putin and people close to him, Russian banks, media companies, political parties and paramilitary groups.

However, European sanctions excluded most food products from Russia.

Most of Russia's multibillion-dollar seafood business, such as Alaskan pollock and cod, continued to flood EU and US fish markets and restaurants.

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

The new sanctions were aimed at closing legal loopholes.

Since Russia could not export its seafood directly to the United States, it sent ships to South Korea or China for processing.

According to Stephanie Madsen, director of the US-based At-Sea Processors Association, the Russian fish managed to cross the EU and US borders eventually in disguise, under another country's label.

Madsen testified before the US Congress that Russian fish exports also directly financed Moscow's war in Ukraine. In 2023, new Russian tariffs on fish exports and $3.97 billion from auctions distributing pollock and crab fishing quotas reportedly went to support Putin's war.

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

“I think they would feel very uncomfortable if they thought that the fish fingers they eat at home or at the [fish] The sandwich they are eating for lunch was made from Russian haddock that supported the Russian regime in its war against Ukraine.”

fish washing

Even if sanctions are applied to fish, ensuring that fish does not enter European or American markets may be difficult because seafood is not always easily traceable.

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

Yozell said, regarding the U.S. system, the mandatory harvest licenses that show where the fish comes from are easily manipulated PDF files.

He added that while the United States has been monitoring illegally caught seafood entering the U.S. market through the Seafood Import Monitoring Program since 2018, the plan only focuses on 13 species and does not include some of the products. of Russian seafood that enter the US market, such as pollock. and halibut.

That means that even in the United States, where Russian seafood is outright banned, fish served in restaurants or sold in supermarkets could be supporting the Russian economy.

The result is that the EU imports around 740,000 tonnes of Alaska pollock, a third of which comes directly from Russia, while another third is sourced from China, of which 95 percent is of Russian origin, said Guus Pastoor. , president of the EU Fisheries Commission. Association of Processors and Merchants (AIPCE).

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

Before reaching Western markets, many Russian catches make a stop at the South Korean port of Busan, one of the largest seaports in the world.

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 port has been busier than ever.

The figures are astonishing. For example, in 2021, Russian vessels did not bring halibut to the port of Busan, a high-priced white-fleshed fish often caught in the Russian/Norwegian Barents Sea.

But in 2023, after the start of the war, the port imported more than 11,000 tons.

While some of that fish could end up in the South Korean market, Korean halibut exports to the United States and China increased significantly that same year.

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

Korean fish exports to Europe and the United States increased. From 2021 to 2022, frozen herring exports to the United States increased 99 percent, while fillet exports to Germany soared 541 percent.

For most of the war, in addition to being exempt from sanctions, Russian seafood producers enjoyed some privileges. Some fish arrived in the EU duty-free or with a reduced tariff.

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

But not everyone was happy with the increase in tariffs on Russian fish.

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

Back in Ukraine, Zagrebelska is working day and night to campaign for tougher sanctions.

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

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