Fish processors, and their customers, are expressing consternation over a change in approach to regulations for shipping frozen fish that threatens to choke off the domestic supply.
The dispute has led to millions of pounds of pollack from Alaska being trapped in frozen storage in New Brunswick, Canada, just across the U.S. border. It threatens to interrupt the supply of pollack, a popular fish for deep-frying, to American fast-food restaurants and retailers.
At issue is a workaround to the Jones Act, a century-old maritime law that basically mandates that all shipments from one U.S. port to another must be carried on vessels built and registered in the U.S. Seafood processors and their customers say this is not practical for shipments of pollack and other fish caught in the Bering Sea. To get to the East Coast, the fish have to sail from an Alaskan port through the Panama Canal. The problem is that there aren’t enough American merchant vessels to handle the loads at acceptable prices, the fish processors claim.
So years ago, they engineered a loophole: The fish gets unloaded onto a railcar in New Brunswick, which rolls 100 feet forward and back, thus qualifying the load as Canadian goods. That makes it OK for the load to have arrived on a foreign vessel, according to their interpretation.
For years, U.S. authorities turned a blind eye. But starting in August, government officials called foul and levied fines totaling $350 million. Now about 26 million pounds of frozen fish is stranded in Canadian warehouses. Meanwhile, fast food chains like Long John Silver’s are saying they can’t get the fish they need.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Sept. 17.