Customs dispute jeopardizes US fish stick, filet supply

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Customs and Border Protection allege that shippers are in violation of the Jones Act, which requires goods shipped between US ports to be carried on US-owned vessels

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Portland, Maine—A customs dispute in the US—Canada The border threatens America’s supply of key fish used for popular products such as fish sticks and fast food sandwiches.

Alaska pollock has a complex supply chain. After being caught as part of the largest commercial fishery in the US, the fish is transported by ship to New Brunswick, Canada, near the border with Maine. They are then loaded onto rail cars for a brief trip down 100 feet (30 m) of track in Canada, before being placed on trucks and crossed the border into the US.

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US Customs and Border Protection allege that shippers are in violation of the Jones Act, which requires goods shipped between US ports to be carried on US-owned vessels.

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The agency has assessed more than $350 million in penalties to shippers, Records State. Two shipping companies have sued in federal court to block enforcement, which they described as heavy-handed, unpredictable and unfair.

The dispute left 26 million pounds of fish in cold storage in Canada until a federal court judge issued an injunction on Sunday that the seafood be shipped to the U.S. industry, with industry members saying they were not allowed to fish. There are concerns about permanent disruption in the food supply chain if disagreements continue.

“We’re talking about feeding and employing Americans right now,” said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the Virginia-based National Fisheries Institute.

Gibbons said it was unlikely that fish in cold storage would start running on Monday because that day was a holiday in both countries.

US Customs filed court papers in early October saying the agency agreed with shippers seeking a speedy resolution of the matter. However, the program he has proposed in court to settle the case will still take several weeks.

A government spokesman said the agency declined to comment on the matter because of the ongoing trial. The shipping companies behind the lawsuit, Klosterbauer International Forwarding and Alaska Reefer Management, which have offices in Seattle, also declined to comment.

Michael Alexander, president of King & Prince, a Georgia-based company that makes seafood for the food service industry, said the controversy comes at a bad time for the seafood industry as the business prepares for the currently busy Lenten season. Many Christians substitute red meat for fish during Lent, and pollock is in high demand during that part of the year. Most fast-food chains’ fish offerings, including McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, are made from pollock.

“If we don’t get pollock soon enough, we’ll run out of time and other raw materials, leaving production lines — and people — sitting idle,” Alexander said.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has asked President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to help settle the dispute. Baker said in a letter to the president in mid-September that if the fish doesn’t start to budge again, his state will be financially hurt for some of the country’s biggest seafood processors.

He wrote that jobs in the industry still battling the coronavirus pandemic may have to pay a price.

“Processors in Massachusetts will exhaust their remaining inventory, halt production and be forced to lay off workers,” Baker’s letter said.

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Trucks carrying fish enter the US in Calais, a small Maine town located about 220 miles northeast of Portland. City manager Michael Ellis said the city is dependent on cross-border economic activity, and has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are all looking forward to the reopening of the border because it is a big part of our economy,” Ellis said.

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This story has been corrected to say that the company that Michael Alexander chairs is King & Prince, not King & Price.


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