Fish Factor: Trade war with China hit US seafood industry hard

It’s been one year, so how’s that trade war with China working out for the nation’s seafood industry? 

As with farmers, there’s not much winning and ongoing tweeted skirmishes have global fish markets skittish.

The quick take is the 25 percent retaliatory tariff imposed by China on US imports last July caused a 36 percent drop in US seafood sales, valued at $340 million, according to an in-depth analysis of Chinese customs data by Undercurrent News.

“Chinese imports of US seafood fell from $1.3 billion in the 12 months prior to tariffs (July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018), to $969m in the twelve months after (July 1, 2018-June 30, 2019), underlining the heavy impact of weaker demand for US seafood subject to tariffs, while poor catch of US wild-caught seafood was also to blame,” the News wrote.

Until then, China had been Alaska’s biggest seafood buyer purchasing 54 percent of seafood exports in 2017 valued at close to $1 billion.  

The tit for tat taxes hit nearly all Alaska seafood; exempted were millions of pounds of frozen Alaska pink and chum salmon and cod that are sent to China for processing into fillets or portions and exported back to the US and other countries. Those numbers took a big slide.


Over the past year, China imported $136 million of Pacific salmon, down 56 percent, and reflecting a 62 percent drop in volume.  Imports of frozen cod decreased to 53 million pounds valued at $91 million, both down 37 percent.

The 25 percent tax also pushed the US from China’s second largest seafood supplier to fourth place, behind Russia, Ecuador and Canada. 

The trade uncertainties have had a downward press on many fish prices and forced Alaska salmon buyers into a more “conservative mode,” especially with pink and chum salmon, said a major Alaska processor.

“The tariffs are not on but they are not off. Could they be on tomorrow or never hit? The threat is always out there,” he said.

Meanwhile, China is turning away from the US market, and selling products to Europe in direct competition with American producers, said John Sackton, market expert and publisher of

“Products that China is not shipping to the US due to the trade war are going elsewhere, and where they compete directly with US products, it means US exporters face a more competitive situation,” he said, adding that American brands will suffer. 

“To the extent buying American in China becomes unpatriotic, the Chinese will begin to shun US seafood products and actively seek out other sources, such as Norway, Ecuador, and Russia,” Sackton said. “In my view, the greatest long term danger from the trade war is that it could lead to a generation of Chinese who look down on American products.”

Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he believes the escalating trade wars are the seafood industry’s biggest challenge.

“In talking with processors, they are uncertain as to the economic viability of delivering their products and getting them onto the shelves of their consumers,” Vincent-Lang said. “When I took this job I understood how we managed our fisheries but I didn’t really have a good appreciation of that dance between how we manage our fisheries in the context of the global economy and world markets.”

Meanwhile, Trump tweeted that beginning September 1 the US will impose a 10 percent tariff on the remaining $300 billion in goods the U.S. imports from China which will include more seafood.

The Wall Street Journal reports that: “The total value of bilateral goods traded with China, $271 billion in the first half of the year, fell short of that with both Canada and Mexico for the first time since 2005. Mexico is now the U.S.’s top trading partner.”  

Fish trade assist – As the federal government prepares to roll out $16 billion to help farmers caught in the cross fire of Trump’s trade wars, Democratic congressmen want fishermen included in the deal.

Currently, fishermen and seafood producers are not eligible to apply for US Dept. of Agriculture trade assistance programs. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton filed legislation in late June to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act to enable the federal government to expand the scope of fishery disasters to include trade disputes.  

Alaska and Maine’s congressional delegations also wrote separate letters to the Trump administration asking it to provide the same relief for fishermen that has been created to help farmers hurt by tariffs.

Salmon prices – Icicle Seafoods was the first buyer at Bristol Bay to post base prices for sockeye at $1.35 a pound, up from the average $1.26 last year, and $.40 for chums, an increase of four cents. 

KDLG in Dillingham reported that Icicle also is paying 15 cent bonuses for iced or RSW fish for both drift and setnetters, plus 8 cents more for chilled/bled, and a five-cent premium for floated fish. All told, that’s $1.63 per pound for sockeyes at Bristol Bay.

Alaska General Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods and Peter Pan at Bristol Bay also have posted a sockeye base of $1.35. 

Kodiak base prices have taken a dip with reports of $1.45 for sockeyes, $0.27 for pinks and $0.25 cents for chums. That compares to last year averages of $1.56, $0.39 and $.51, respectively. 

At Cook Inlet, sockeye prices were reported at $1.70, down from $2.27.

Southeast Alaska trollers were averaging $5.13 a pound for Chinook, $1.56 for coho and $0.61 for chums, according to fish tickets. Prices for seine and driftnet-caught salmon were reported at $0.55 for chums, down from $0.90, sockeyes at $1.90, a drop of six-cents, and $0.30 for pinks, down from $0.38 per pound on average last year.

At Norton Sound, chum prices at $0.50, were down from $0.80 and coho at $1.40 was the same as last year.  

Average Alaska salmon prices per pound across all regions for 2018 were: Chinook – $5.98; sockeye – $1.33; coho – $1.34; chum – $78; pink – $.45. Prices do not include bonuses.