PORTLAND, Maine – A customs dispute at the Canada-U.S. border threatens the U.S. supply of a key fish used for popular products such as fish fingers and fast food sandwiches.
Alaska pollock has a complicated supply chain. After being caught in the largest commercial fishery in the United States, the fish are transported by boat to New Brunswick, Canada, near the border with Maine. They are then loaded onto rail cars for a brief trip over 100 feet (30 meters) of track in Canada, before being put on trucks and crossing the border into the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection alleged the shippers violated the Jones Act, which requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on U.S.-owned vessels.
The agency imposed more than $350 million in penalties on shippers, records show. Two of the shipping companies sued in federal court to end the enforcement, which they called brutal, unexpected 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 to allow the seafood to be shipped to the United States. disagreement persists.
“We’re talking about feeding and employing Americans right now,” said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the Virginia-based National Fisheries Institute.
Gibbons said the fish in cold storage was unlikely to start moving on Monday as it was a public holiday in both countries.
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In early October, US Customs filed court documents indicating that the agency agreed with shippers in wanting a speedy resolution to the case. However, the timeline he offered the court to resolve the case would still take several weeks.
The agency declined to comment on the case due to ongoing litigation, a government spokesperson said. The shipping companies behind the lawsuit, Kloosterboer International Forwarding and Alaska Reefer Management, which have offices in Seattle, also declined to comment.
The dispute comes at a bad time for the seafood industry as the company is currently preparing for the busy Lenten season, said Michael Alexander, chairman of King and Prince, a Georgian seafood company. for the restaurant industry. Many Christians replace red meat with fish during Lent, and pollock is more in demand during this part of the year. Most fast-food chain fish dishes, including McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, are made from pollock.
“If we can’t get the pollock quickly, we’ll run out of time and other raw materials; which causes production lines – and people – to sit idle,” Alexander said.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, called on President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to help resolve the dispute. Baker said in a mid-September letter to the president that his state, home to some of the nation’s largest seafood processors, stands to be economically hit if fish don’t start moving again.
It could cost jobs in an industry still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, he wrote.
“Massachusetts processors will deplete remaining inventory, halt production and be forced to lay off workers,” Baker’s letter said.
The trucks carrying the fish enter the United States at Calais, a small town in Maine about 220 miles northeast of Portland. The city depends on cross-border economic activity, and that has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, said Michael Ellis, the city manager.
“We’re all hoping the border will reopen because it’s a big part of our economy,” Ellis said.