NFI seeks to reach administration on seafood trade in 2018

News   23/01/2018 - Nguyễn Trí Tín

Pressing the importance of all trade on the Donald Trump administration, including imported seafood, will be one of the top priorities of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) in 2018.

The US seafood industry’s biggest trade association, representing close to 300 companies, is still smarting from several of the moves made by the White House and its Cabinet in their first year, including its formal withdrawal from a trade deal with Pacific countries, a lack of progress on a trade deal with Europe and implementation of the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (Simp).

But NFI president John Connelly said trade will remain a top focal point for the group in the New Year.

“We just need to spend more time on the Hill and in the administration to help them appreciate that not all trade is negative for the US,” Connelly told Undercurrent News in an December interview at his office in McLean, Virginia. “Seafood is not like steel or autos or something else. We cannot now produce enough seafood in the US, whether it be from wild capture or aquaculture, to feed all Americans.”

The US exports 40% to 60% of the seafood it produces, depending on the value of the dollar and some other factors, and imports about 85% of the seafood it consumes. Seafood is responsible for 1,270,141 jobs in the U.S. and imports account for 525,291 of those, according to Department of Commerce data noted by the association.

“Gladys, down in Brownsville, Texas, is cutting imported tilapia right now, and that job is extraordinarily important to her family. Why is that job any less important than a job involving domestic codfish?” Connelly said.

High points and low points in 2017

But in looking back at 2017, Connelly can point to at least one major trade-related victory: The removal of the prospective border adjustment tax from the legislative tax overhaul passed by Congress and signed by the president before leaving on its winter break. The provision, which was supported by several Republican leaders, would have forced some seafood dealers to raise their prices 30% to 40%, said Connelly, quoting a Wall Street Journal article.

Connelly also credits the administration for removing regulatory burdens for businesses, which he said has contributed to an overall air of confidence in the US economy. Consumers tend to go to restaurants more often when they are feeling good about the economy, and seafood is most often eaten away from home, Connelly said.

But the president’s formal withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of his first acts after taking office, cost the US seafood industry an opportunity to reduce tariffs of 3% to 11% on Alaskan seafood exported to Asia. Meanwhile, the European Union-Canada Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement that went into effect in September, put US lobster harvesters at a disadvantage to Canadian lobster harvesters, who are no longer required to pay an 8% tariff. 

Connelly is even more critical of Simp, calling its implementation the low point of 2017 for the seafood industry. The National Marine Fisheries Service began requiring compliance Jan. 1, though it has suggested it will initially take a more forgiving approachto enforcement. The rule, which was first proposed under the Barack Obama administration to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing as well as fish fraud, requires the collection of 17 new data elements for 11 species of fish.

Critics, including Connelly, however, say Simp will unnecessarily subject foreign harvesters with high standards and US importers to cumbersome recordkeeping requirements.   

“There are countries like Iceland that are at least the equal of the US as far as fisheries management, and the US refused to acknowledge that and included the iconic Icelandic cod as a species that is at risk or a high priority for illegal fishing,” Connelly said. “There is not a tenth of a bit of evidence that suggests that is true.”

NFI was one of several trade groups and seafood companies to lodge an unsuccessful court challenge against the Simp rule in 2017.

Brexit, influencing chefs are opportunities in 2018 

However, on the bright side, Brexit may give the administration a chance to score some strategic trade-related advances, Connelly noted, as the US exports a lot of whitefish and salmon to the United Kingdom. The UK was the fourth-largest importer of US seafood in 2016 among the European nations – behind Germany, Spain and France -- accounting for 19,136t, worth $108.9 million, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Trade talks must remain in a “holding pattern” until London and Brussels work out their differences, but soon after that the US should move quickly to establish a better relationship with the UK, he said.

Improving trade is one of three key tenets of NFI’s strategy to increase the consumption of seafood in the US.

Another low point for the US seafood industry in 2017 came in late October when NOAA reported that US consumers ate an average of 14.9 lbs each of seafood in 2016, less than the 15.5 lbs eaten in 2015. 

NFI was quick to point out that seafood consumption has been increasing in the US since 2013, when consumers ate 14.5 lbs., and 2014, when they ate 14.6 lbs, but Connelly is not happy with the number.

“The size of the US market is second only to China for seafood,” Connelly told Undercurrent. “We are a massive market for seafood and a growing market. Per capita consumption is low compared to the powerhouses of Portugal, Spain and Iceland. Part of it is cultural in that we are a country of meat and potatoes. Part of it is geographic in that when you move to the center of the country you don’t get fresh seafood. So, we are pleased generally with the trend but we are not pleased with the number.”

In 2018, NFI plans to use its limited budget to focus more on educating the influencers of consumption patterns, such as chefs, culinary institutes and the public health community, Connelly said.  

“It’s extraordinarily costly to reach 325m Americans – think about what GM, Ford, Pfizer or Coca-Cola spend every day -- so we need to look at other means to try to help people understand the importance of seafood,” he said.

“Seafood is a healthy protein, a sustainable product. Seafood is prepared in such a variety of ways that is almost incomprehensible. There are only so many ways to cook a steak or beef,” he said.

Connelly: Magnuson-Stevens doesn't need 'major overhauls'

Another key issue for NFI in 2018 will be sustainability, as Congress appears poised to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The trade association has yet to take a position on Alaska representative Don Young’s bill, HR 200, which passed the House’s Natural Resources Committee earlier this month and is poised to head to the floor. 

“We’re generally comfortable with the [Magnuson-Stevens Act], as it exists right now, Connelly said. “We think it has strong science components. It has strong oversight and enforcement. It has the flexibility that we seek for the regions, recognizing that the Gulf of Mexico is not Alaska. So, we’re not looking for major overhauls in this bill.”

NFI has taken a position against Louisiana representative Garrett Graves’ bill, HR 3588,  to give states more authority over managing the red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico, however, suggesting it could hurt the stock.

“Why would you change something that has rebuilt the stock so that it is now healthy and has good distribution to both recreational anglers and the commercial industry that feeds people in restaurants?" Connelly said. "The dang thing isn’t broken.”

The commercial fishing industry cares about the long-term interest of fish stocks and has even resisted raising catch limits, he said.

 “We get a little bit nervous when people on either side begin to say we should take non-science factors into adjust what our total allowable catch is.”