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Collateral damage

During the past year, it’s become increasingly clear that Southeast Alaska isn’t escaping collateral damage during the escalating trade war with China.

Caught in the tariff crossfire is Alaska seafood — including salmon.

In 2018, Alaska’s congressional delegation successfully lobbied the U.S. trade representative to roll back a planned U.S. tariff on Alaska salmon and cod being reimported to the U.S. after processing in China.

But the trade war has rolled on and ratcheted up. One affect is seen in the precipitous drop in Chinese purchases of Pacific salmon.

An Undercurrent News analysis of Chinese custom data showed a 62% drop in Chinese imports of Pacific salmon during the past year. One factor: China turning to other sources. The U.S. slipped from second place to fourth place as a seafood supplier to China, writes Alaska fisheries journalist Laine Welch.

The situation could play out over a much longer term, according to fisheries expert John Sackton, publisher of SeafoodNews.com.

“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,”  said Sackton, as quoted by Welch. “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.”

Coming into the 2019 season, the effects of the strengthening trade war were being seen by commercial purse seine salmon fishermen in Alaska.

Writing in a July 23 op-ed appearing in the Seattle Times, Robert Kehoe, executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners' Association, complained of economic harm stemming from retaliatory Chinese tariffs.

“The impacts of this retaliation are severe and worsening as time passes,” Kehoe wrote. “For example, as the 2019 Alaska salmon season begins in earnest, fishermen are receiving the lowest price for Alaska pink salmon in years, which is a direct result of the trade dispute with China.”

An Aug. 6 story in the Christian Science Monitor highlighted the trade fight’s effects on commercial seiners.

Quoted in the story was seiner Sven Stroosma, who said he knows the U.S. feels that China has unfair trade practices, and is playing hardball to change China’s positions.

 “But this is a small sector of the economy that is being affected pretty seriously,” Stroosma said in a call from his seiner.

Alaska’s commercial salmon fishermen and producers are ineligible for the same kind of USDA trade assistance programs that have routed billions in federal aid to land-based farmers affected by the trade wars.

Kehoe’s op-ed advocated for a change, citing support from Alaska’s congressional delegation for extending federal assistance packages to fishermen.

“The Trump administration and Congress need to include commercial fishermen and seafood producers in trade assistance programs or expand disaster relief to fisheries affected by tariffs,” Kehoe wrote.

Time will tell whether such aid will be forthcoming. But as the trade fight digs deeper into Alaska’s fishing economy, most observers acknowledge that there’s no end in sight.

Two weeks ago, the president tweeted that the U.S. will impose 10% tariffs on yet another $300 billion worth of Chinese goods beginning Sept. 1. China responded by devaluing its currency.

Who knows what’s next.

Not us. Nor does someone like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who told a Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Ketchikan audience on Friday that “I don't think any of us feel that we're coming to the end with China.

“In fact, I think we are coming to ... a place where it's ramping up on both sides,” Murkowski said. “and how do you then get off of where we are? I don't know.”

On March 2, 2018, the president tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

The past 17 months have proven anything but “easy.” We’re starting to wonder about “good,” as well.