Say Nyet To Russian Fish

George J. Hochbrueckner Former Congressman (D-NY)
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The American people have long had a genius for expressing their disdain for the actions of foreign leaders, at least as far back as 1773, when King George III imposed new taxes on the colonists “without representation.” Outrage in the colonies was widespread, and the Sons of Liberty sent a loud and clear message to London by dumping an entire shipment of tea sent by the British East India Company into Boston Harbor.

It is now time to tap the spirit of the founders in confronting Vladimir Putin. Putin has defied the United States and the international community by supporting Bashar Al Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. He has destabilized Europe with Russia’s violent and illegal annexation Crimea. Last week, according to all the available evidence, Russia provided materiel and tactical support to the Ukrainian rebels who shot down a civilian jetliner, killing 290 innocent people. And just this week he violated a decades-old missile treaty. It is time to throw the millions of pounds of Russian fish that American consumers buy each year into the sea.

Thus far, America’s outrage at Putin has been expressed almost exclusively through an escalating series of targeted economic sanctions. However, Putin has remained intransigent, even defiant, in the face of these measures. The American people can turn the screws by targeting Russia’s multi-billion dollar fish and seafood industry, a strategic sector of the Russian economy that has snuck in to America’s grocery stores and restaurants.

In 2013, Russian companies caught almost 4.3 million tons of fish, putting Russia in in the top ten of the world’s fishery producers and employing hundreds of thousands of Russians. President Putin considers fisheries a “strategic” sector and a key part of growing Russia’s GDP. Pollock is the most important of Russia’s commercial catches, accounting for more than 60 percent of Russia’s total fish and seafood catch. The export of frozen, Russian-caught pollock — much of it to America — amounted to nearly a half million tons, or 35 percent of Russia’s $2.4 billion seafood export sector. All of which makes a consumer boycott an easy choice for Americans seeking an outlet to punish Russia.

Americans love seafood. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Americans consumed 4.5 billion pounds of seafood in 2013, nearly 16 pounds annually for every man, woman, and child. Despite having the gold standard for fisheries here in the US, 91 percent of seafood consumer here is imported from places like Russia. Some may ask how Russian pollock came to so pervade the U.S. market when higher quality, more sustainably-caught pollock is available from our own Alaska fleet. For one, some large U.S. buyers such as fast food restaurants and big box stores like the profit margins on cheap fish. But there’s more to it. Russian seafood has been shoved down Americans’ throats by a clever bit of branding. A European organization called the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has made a business for itself by “certifying” that fish are sustainably caught. However, MSC standards aren’t equal to the standards of U.S. fisheries. What’s more, the MSC certifies Russian pollock through its bush-league subsidiary called the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. The MSC/SFP is paid by the fisheries as well as the buyers. That smells fishy to me.

To do their part for conservation, many American buyers like supermarkets, restaurant chains and others will buy only “sustainably” caught fish to sell to consumers. That’s how you get cheap Russian fish being dumped into our country.

Americans can easily identify who buys Russian versus American pollock and make their purchasing decisions accordingly. A new website www.justsaynyet.org also has a handy tracker. Companies like Gorton’s, Ms. Smith, VandeKamps and others should be shamed into jettisoning their ill-gotten cargos of Russian fish. The point is, boycotting Russian fish strikes at the heart of a strategic Russian sector and supports one of America’s. Americans understand how the global economy can enrich us all by offering us choices. For Americans wishing to send Russia an unmistakable message, the choice is clear. Just say nyet to Russian fish.

George Hochbrueckner is a former four-term United States Congressman (D-NY) who served on the House Armed Services and Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committees for eight years (1987-1995).