Fish & seafood in Russia: calm seas or stormy tides?

Seafood is in an interesting place in Russia right now. The food embargo restricted exports by key suppliers – but this has only opened up the sector to maritime states with healthy fishing industries.

And why not? Even in the face of import bans, fish and seafood is a $1.3 billion import market. The bounty of the sea has long been an integral part of Russia’s international food trade, so let’s see what importers are spending those billions on in the seafood sector.

Russia’s fish & seafood market: sweeping changes

According to the MIT Atlas of Economic Complexity, an online trade database, these were the top seafood product categories imported by Russia in 2016:

• Non-fillet frozen fish - $634 million
• Crustaceans - $202 million
• Non-fillet fresh fish - $183 million
• Fillet fish - $151 million
• Processed fish - $126 million

Non-processed offerings, i.e. not canned or finished products, make up the vast bulk of these imports, says data from Russian fisheries agency Rosrybolovstvo. Import volumes reveal the scale of this split:

• 85.66% - fresh, frozen or live fish, molluscs & crustaceans – 438,610 tons
• 14.34% - canned or finished fish products – 73,400 tons

Overall, Russia imported a total of 512,000 tons of fish and seafood items in 2016. Consumption of fish has actually dropped off in recent years – mainly due to Russia’s recent economic woes. Now consumption stands at around 19kg per person per year; a drop from 22.3kg per person, prior to the Russian crisis. However, consumption is picking up once more, says Rosrybolovstvo, fluctuating close to pre-recession levels across the first half of 2017. And while aquaculture is emerging as a developmental priority for Russian authorities, increasing fish consumption, alongside growing purchasing power, could keep the door open for imported seafood.

Prior to the embargo, Norway was a big exporter of salmon and other species to Russia. Three year Russia and the West fell out, and things have changed. Norway is no longer allowed to send its seafood to Russia. Many other nations have stepped up their supplies as a result. Now, Chile and the Faroe Islands lead the export charge. In 2016, both these nations collectively exported fish products worth $579 million to Russia. As such, this pair of states is responsible for just under half of total Russian imported seafood sales in 2016.

Russia does not look exclusively to the Atlantic for its fish, however. That would completely remove the world’s biggest seafood production region from the import mix. No, Russia also sources hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of seafood from East Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Take a look at this breakdown those top product categories by top suppliers:

• Non-fillet frozen fish top suppliers = Chile ($303m), Faroe Islands ($137m), China ($66.7m)
• Crustaceans – China ($46.2m), India ($41.7m), Greenland ($38.4m)
• Non-fillet fresh fish – Faroe Islands ($139m), Turkey ($33.2m), Armenia ($7.89m)
• Fillet fish – Vietnam ($46.9m), China ($32.8m), Chile ($21.9m)
• Processed fish – Belarus ($96.5m), China ($47.1m), Thailand ($17.9m)

Russia itself is a major exporter of seafood to the monumental Chinese market, so it has close ties with many companies up and down the Pacific. On the receiving end, it mostly secures shipments of Pacific species from China, Vietnam, and Thailand. In fact, Asia is attempting to establish itself as a proper seafood force in Russia, especially Vietnam. The Asian nation signed a trade deal with Russia in 2016, reducing tariffs on its exports to Russia. Could this play into increased seafood activity between the pair?

Is salmon Russia’s favourite imported seafood? Even though it cut off the world’s largest salmon producer, Norway, from its seafood trade in 2014, salmon remains the top product for Russian importers. In 2016, total salmon imports, including Atlantic and Danube varieties, amounted to $390m. Elsewhere, we find that frozen shrimp and prawns are another hot commodity. Mainly sourced from China, Vietnam, and India, Russian imports of said products came to $201m in 2017. If you notice above, Russia’s entire crustacean purchases totalled $202m, so you can see the popularity of frozen prawns and shrimp amongst Russian consumers.