FISH FACTOR: Mexico becomes top US trade partner one year into China conflict

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 U.S. imports last July caused a 36 percent drop in U.S. 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 $969 million in the 12 months after (July 1, 2018-June 30, 2019), underlining the heavy impact of weaker demand for U.S. seafood subject to tariffs, while poor catch of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. market, and selling products to Europe in direct competition with American producers, said John Sackton, market expert and publisher of SeafoodNews.com.

“Products that China is not shipping to the U.S. due to the trade war are going elsewhere, and where they compete directly with U.S. products, it means U.S. 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 U.S. 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, President Donald Trump tweeted that beginning Sept. 1 the U.S. 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 Department of Agriculture trade assistance programs. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Massachusetts Rep. 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 per pound, up from the average $1.26 last year, and 40 cents per pound for chums, an increase of four cents.

KDLG in Dillingham reported that Icicle also is paying 15-cent bonuses for iced or refrigerated seawater 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, 27 cents for pinks and 25 cents for chums. That compares to last year averages of $1.56, 39 cents and 51 cents, 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 61 cents for chums, according to fish tickets. Prices for seine and driftnet-caught salmon were reported at 55 cents for chums, down from 90 cents, sockeyes at $1.90, a drop of six cents, and 30 centsfor pinks, down from 38 cents per pound on average last year.

At Norton Sound, chum prices at 50 cents were down from 80 cents 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 cents; pink, 45 cents. Prices do not include bonuses.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
08/07/2019 - 9:42am

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