NFI’s Connelly: Seafood industry should’ve seen Trump trade storm coming 

From Undercurrent News

By Jason Huffman

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nobody should be surprised by the tough stance President Donald Trump has taken in relation to trade, John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), said Monday.

“There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the attitude of president Trump … or his leaders that he has put into positions of authority,” Connelly told a large crowd at the Marine Ingredients Organization’s (IFFO’s) 57th annual conference, in Washington, DC. “President Trump campaigned on a very strong promise of promoting domestic production, domestic manufacturing, domestic coal, things like that, so the fact that he’s taking these steps should not be a surprise.”

Introduced as the speaker who best represents the local flavor of this year’s IFFO conference host city, Connelly clarified to the crowd that he was a lobbyist. His group is described as representing the US seafood industry, though given the high amount of seafood imported into the country, roughly 85% of it, its members include a fair number of companies with foreign interests.

Trump roiled much of the US agriculture industry when he withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership almost immediately after taking office, ending what had already been a tortured effort to get Congress’ approval of the 12-nation trade deal that the Barack Obama administration took seven years to negotiate. He has now set his sights on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The US seafood industry got dinged, too, by the withdraw from TPP. It meant giving up an opportunity to reduce tariffs of 3% to 11% on Alaskan seafood exported to Asian countries, while also further opening the door for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a competing trade deal involving China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia among other Asian countries.

RCEP is seen as potentially facilitating the movement of Indian and Vietnamese shrimp to China, while stimulating some movement of further processing of seafood from China to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has acknowledged having an “unusual fixation” with the US seafood trade deficit, and many of the individuals named to operate many of the US agencies that are important to trade come with backgrounds in trade enforcement, Connelly said.

“Frankly, we wish he would concentrate more on exports in order to rebalance trade,” he said.

NFI, in particular, takes issue with the administration’s advancement of the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), a rule that takes effect in January and will require seafood companies to provide information detailing the kind of fish they’re importing into the US as well as where and how it was caught or farmed.

The federal government will start with a focus on 12 or 13 fish, Connelly said Monday, adding that “there is some push to include shrimp” in the program by January 2019.

“It’s going to be a very costly regulating program,” he said.

A federal judge, in August, threw out an effort by NFI, Trident Seafoods, Pacific Seafood Group, Fortune Fish & Gourmet and others to challenge the new SIMP regulation, which NFI has argued will cost the seafood industry $53 million in recordkeeping expenses while reducing seafood choices for the average American family.

Not the biggest protein source, but big enough

Connelly, who took the helm at NFI in early 2003 after 13 years at the American Chemistry Council and five years in the US Navy, spent a good bit of his presentation on Monday extolling the importance of the US as a buyer of seafood.

It’s true that the US consumer ate only 15 lbs of fish per capita in 2016, with seafood accounting for only about 15% of the dollars spent on protein, according to a combination of federal data, Connelly conceded. By comparison, US consumers ate 64 lbs of poultry, 52 lbs of beef and 46 lbs of pork last year.

“But in a country with 325m people that means we have a fairly sizable market,” he said. “…We spend about $100 billion on seafood items. Even if that’s only 15 lbs per person, that’s still a lot of seafood sold in this country.”

The US is importing 40% of Chile’s farmed salmon, for example, he noted. It takes one in every five pounds of Chinese tilapia, he said.

Because so much of the seafood imported by the US is farmed, it’s “very important to have your governments communicate the steps they are taking to make sure they are [maintaining strong sustainability measures],” Connelly told the attendees reported to be from 15 foreign countries in the room.