Source: Alamy

Russia is currently responsible for 40% of fish exports globally with many of its fish traditionally processed in China, according to Seafish 

New tariffs on white fish imported from Russia are causing “panic” across the fish sector, and could lead to shortages and price hikes, industry insiders have warned.

Businesses this week issued urgent calls for clarity on the true impact of the 35% tariffs, imposed by the UK government on 15 March in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

The far-reaching tariffs, estimated to be worth almost £1bn, will apply to a raft of food products and materials used in food and drink including beverages, cereals, spirits (including vodka), vinegar, oilseeds, white fish and fertilisers. 

The tariffs look set to impact UK supply, which is heavily reliant on imported white fish. As much as 90% of the cod consumed in Britain comes from overseas, according to the Marine Conservation Society.

One seafood supplier told The Grocer the move was causing “panic and concern” in the industry. While the measures are unlikely to have an immediate impact, there remain big question marks over how the tariffs will affect supplies over the longer term.

The business said it was currently not clear whether fish caught in Russia but processed elsewhere would be included under the tariff.

According to industry body Seafish, Russia is currently responsible for 40% of fish exports globally, with much of the fish then processed in China, before being exported around the world. It estimates the tariffs could affect up to 30% of UK fish imports.

Seafish said there was no “obvious or quick substitute for this product if it is no longer available to UK businesses” or little option to increase supply.

Any change to supply volumes would ultimately impact production of seafood products and their availability in retail, it warned. The body estimates raw material prices will increase by at least 20%-30% as a result of current events and it stressed many suppliers and retailers “will not be able to absorb these costs”.

“We expect some changes in the supply chain to the UK because of the tariffs, but this will probably depend on the UK retailers’ buying policy,” said Hans Frode Kielland Asmyhr, the UK director of the Norwegian Seafood Council.

“It’s important retailers communicate origin on white fish much stronger to their consumers than they do today, that this is a high quality and sustainable product that consumers must expect to pay extra for,” added Asmyhr. 

“If prices increase, I believe it will be important for retail to take their consumers on the journey and the story behind these products,” he said.

Responding to the tariff announcement, major processor Young’s Seafood said it was “working closely with the government and other industry bodies to understand the potential implications of the new tariffs”.

The supplier’s priority “remains to ensure we continue to deliver sustainably sourced seafood in an appropriate way”, Young’s said in a statement.

Some industry leaders have suggested the tariffs should mark a moment to improve white fish sourcing practices in the UK to better meet British consumer demands.

“There are five cod stocks found in the waters around the UK, all of which are suffering from the effects of environmental degradation such as climate change or unsustainable fishing – or both,” said Clara Johnston, a fisheries policy advocate at the Marine Conservation Society.

“The inability to demonstrate sustainable fishing practices is also preventing UK cod and other fish and shellfish species from entering the UK supply chain,” she added.

“A forward looking and evidenced-based approach to fisheries management could provide the additional benefit of £440mn every year and support 6,600 new jobs, as well as deliver benefits for food security,” Johnston claimed.