USDA announces tariff relief for seafood harvesters

  • Workers sort Dungeness crab at the Icicle Seafoods plant in Petersburg in this file photo. Harvesters in several fisheries including Dungeness crab are eligible for tariff relief payments under a new USDA program. (Photo/File/AP)

Harvesters in more than a dozen commercial fisheries across Alaska that have been hit in the pocketbook by foreign tariffs on American seafood are eligible for part of $530 million in federal aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA announced Sept. 9 that the money is meant to offset weaker market conditions for American seafood brought on by import tariffs. A statement announcing the availability of the funds, which will be dispersed through the USDA’s new Seafood Trade Relief Program, says generally that the aid is meant to help commercial fishermen “impacted by retaliatory tariffs from foreign governments,” but it is understood to be a direct response to tariffs from China.

“Many nations have not played by the rules for a long time, and President Trump is the first president to stand up to them and send a clear message that the United States will no longer tolerate unfair trade practices. The Seafood Trade Relief Program ensures fishermen ” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a prepared statement.

The money will be available to commercial fishermen that participated in fisheries that, by species, suffered more than $5 million in retaliatory trade damages, according to program documents provided by the USDA.

The Alaska fisheries include:

  • Atka mackerel
  • Dungeness, king, and Tanner crab
  • Geoduck
  • Herring
  • Pacific cod
  • Pollock
  • Black cod (sablefish)
  • Salmon
  • Sole

 

The aid is capped at $250,000 per person. Fishermen can apply for the aid from Sept. 14 to Dec. 14 through local USDA Service Centers.

Eligible fishermen will receive funds on a per pound basis according to USDA calculations that attempt to determine to what level the price of a given species was impacted by the tariffs. Atka mackerel fishermen, for example, can receive 10 cents per pound, while harvesters of the more valuable geoduck clam can receive 76 cents per pound — the highest payment amount among the qualifying species.

The funds will come from the Commodity Credit Corp. that is administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

China has placed tariffs of varying levels — some up to 40 percent — on American seafood imports following import tariffs levied on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods, starting in 2018.

With an annual value of roughly $2.5 billion, seafood is far and away Alaska’s top export and accounts for about half of the value of all the products and commodities shipped out of the state, according to figures from the Alaska Office of International Trade.

Additionally, China is the state’s largest trading partner. The country has purchased about $1.2 billion worth of Alaska goods — about one-quarter of all the state’s exports — in recent years.

Many in the state’s fishing industry initially feared the Trump administration’s tariffs on seafood imported from China would doubly hit Alaska-harvested fish and shellfish, as much of the state’s catch is sent across the Pacific for processing in China before returning to the U.S. as a finished retail product.

However, administration officials exempted domestically sourced seafood products that are eventually imported from China from the tariffs in July 2018 after National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials discussed the issue with those in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach said she got a call “bright and early” Sept. 9 from White House food and agriculture officials about a subsequent briefing that included the president’s advisors for a program that would benefit Alaska’s commercial fishermen.

Leach emphasized that Sen. Dan Sullivan was “very instrumental” in getting the aid for fishermen across the country. She noted harvesters of other food commodities — many of the nation’s farmers — previously received federal aid to offset the impacts by China’s tariffs. The Seafood Trade Relief Program simply provides similar help to the country’s seafood harvesters.

“Sen. Sullivan just kept pushing and pushing to say, ‘commercial fishermen were impacted by this, too.’” Leach described.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she is pleased the administration has recognized the importance of a healthy seafood industry after more than two years of retaliatory tariffs from China and also thanked Sullivan for his “relentless efforts to educate the administration” on the issue.

Sullivan serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the subcommittees covering fisheries and trade.

He has regularly called out the trade practices of the Chinese government but has also been critical at times of the Trump administration’s often blunt approach to the issue.

Staff in Sullivan’s office said that while the aid does not solve the more country’s fundamental trade issues with China, the Chinese government has long violated international trade rules.

Sullivan said in a formal statement that he raised the issue of tariff relief for Alaska fishermen in discussions with numerous administration officials, including Trump, Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence.

“I am very appreciative that the White House and the Department of Agriculture listened to the fishermen in Alaska and across the country, and are offering substantial, historic financial assistance to these hard-working individuals,” he said. “As I often say, Alaska is the superpower of seafood for our nation, and our fishermen are America’s ultimate small business.”

Leach reminded fishermen who apply for the aid that it is not meant for fishermen who had their business impacted by the pandemic; there are other aid programs for that.

“This is specific and only for tariff relief,” she said.

Alaska’s large commercial halibut fishery was left off the list of eligible fisheries because halibut is mostly sold domestically, particularly to restaurants, according to Leach. However, she questioned why the sea cucumber fishery was left off as well.

“Sea cucumber divers were one of the first (groups) impacted by Chinese tariffs and lost a lot of money,” Leach said.

The money is only available to harvesters; processors are not eligible, Leach clarified as well.

Still, she encouraged Alaskan fishermen to apply for the aid as quickly as possible, given the $530 million will eventually be spread nationwide.

“It’s half-a-billion dollars, however, when you’re looking to help fishermen across the country those dollars start to dwindle very fast,” Leach said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/11/2020 - 11:54am