Where is russian crab disappearing without a trace?

When we hear about poachers shipping tens of thousands of tonnes of crab from Russia every year, a question seems to beg: how could such enormous quantities «dissolve» abroad, without raising any concerns? The process is worthy of a separate discussion.

Russian crab: made in China.

Russian seafood, crab in particular, was clearly labeled until the year 2000. Lables showed the fishing vessel, its owner, the date of catch, etc. Obviously, producers of poached crab found it bothersome to make up the history of catch in such detail. They got rid of it, using loopholes in Russian law, supported by help from the Chinese and Korean accomplices.

As a result, obligatory information about the catch was shortened to an extreme, making it unnecessary for the producers to supply legal documents along with the produce.

Here’s an example of how illegally caught crab makes its way from the Russian waters to the consumer.

The produce is transferred form the fishing vessel, which caught crab, to a shipping vessel. The captain of the latter fills out a mate’s receipt to his liking – anything could be made up, except for the name of the transport vessel and the quantity of the shipment. The mate’s receipt will not be scrutinized in a Korean port, where the product is heading. The mate’s receipt is only necessary to unload the shipment in the Korean port of Pusan – without going through customs, as the crab is not destined for the local market.

In South Korea poached crab shipment is transferred from the ship to a storage facility, tested for quality, and then registered by an agent company, which will supply the produce with fake documents. Afterwards, crab is either shipped to the U.S. through China – although, when shipped straight from South Korea, the shipment hardly ever raises any concerns, most distributors of poached crab prefer the latter method.

In China, Russian crab gets new documents, a stamp that says «made in China» or «produce of China», and heads out to the United States.

The scheme of legalization of poached crab has been in use for such a long time that many Russian exporters cannot imagine working in any other way.

The paradox of the situation lies in that even if the crab is caught legally, it still goes through all steps, otherwise reserved for poached produce. Essentially, a legally-caught produce becomes illegal, once it gets to China.

Though it would seem the Chinese should be concerned with the situation, in reality, they’re more than happy with it – the more crab gets processed in China, the more profit and jobs it creates for the Chinese.

American companies, which distribute the Russian crab under «product of China» lables, are quite satisfied with the scenario. As far as they are concerned, they are Bona Fide Purchasers of the product, and all questions regarding the origin of the catch do not concern them. In reality, many of American buyers are fully aware of the source of the poached crab, and prefer to purchase it, rather than the legally-caught crab, because of the lower price.

Quality control for contraband.

Around three years ago, Russian federal agency National Center for Seafood Safety (Natsrybkachestvo) began issuing a new type of health certificate for seafood and agriculture exports from Russia.

By authenticating the certificate, the company specialist thereby guarantees the quality and lawfulness of origin of the produce. The certificate was to serve as another barrier, protecting foreign markets from the influx of poached seafood. However, poachers were not affected by the new measures at all. They began issuing forged certificates, what with the modern technology and printing capabilities did not present any problem at all.

At the same time, neither South Korean, nor Chinese distributors bother to check for authenticity of the certificates.

Our publication got a hold of 20 of such fake health certificates from asian sources. Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Control has affirmed these certificates as fake, as they were not listed anywhere in the Service’s registries.

Yet, it may be useful to take a close look at these papers, though they may not give us the full information. We do know, however, that the quantity of seafood caught, and the consignee are nearly always listed correctly.

Here’s an example of a forged certificate # PRC 0010302. According to its data, a 96-tonne shipment of cooked frozen King crab was delivered from Russia in December 2007. It was caught and shipped by the vessel “Vityaz”, officially registered in South Korea. The cargo arrived in Pusan first, then was shipped to Qindao (China). The sender was listed as an American company “Aqua Star”, the receiver – “Aqua Star Qingdao Yuanqiang Food Co Ltd”. The Certificate was supposedly authenticated in Petropavlovsk on December 17th, 2007 and signed by the director of Natsrybkachestvo, Ekaterina Poddubnaya. A certificate of origin, given by the Vladivostok Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was attached to the document.

From the get-go, two falsifications are already evident. Ekaterina Poddubnaya was not serving as the director of the National Center for Security of Fishing Produce and Water Culture at that time, and Vladivostok Chamber of Commerce and Industry simply does not exist. However, both companies, Aqua Star and Aqua Star Qingdao Yuanqiang Food Co Ltd, are very real, indeed.

If we assume at least 90 per cent of the information, contained in the certificates of authenticity in questions, is true, we can draw the following conclusions.

From September 2007 until September 2008 several vessels have shipped more than one thousand tones of crab using falsified documents. The cargo arrived to Aqua Star in South Korea, or to Yusen Kairiku Unyu Kaisha Ltd in Japan, and from there was shipped further to Aqua Star Qingdao Yuanqiang Food Co Ltd in China. When cargo goes through as many intermediaries, tracking its origin is hardly possible. The final addressee, judging by the name of the company, was situated in the U.S.

Reputation of more than half of the vessels, involved in the shipments, allows to say with certainty that most of them really did supply crab to all these firms.

Here’s a shortlist, with the information taken from Russian Maritime Registry:

F/V VITYAZ (Closed Joint Stock Company «KOMPAS», Vladivostok) arrested in July, 2008, as part of criminal investigation (delivered 250 tonnes of poached crab to Pusan in November-December 2007, according to the false certificate).

Rifer-transporter AJAX. Arrested in December, 2008, while sailing under Cambodian flag. 50 tonnes of crab were discovered on board (178 tonnes of crab delivered to Japan in September-November 2007, according to the false certificate).

F/V DAX arrested in September of 2009, while sailing under Panama flag. 130 tonnes of crab discovered on board (200 tonnes of poached crab delivered to Japan several months prior to the arrest, again, according to the false certificate).

Rifer-transporter NORD arrested in November, 2009, while sailing under Cambodian flag. Six tones of crab discovered on board (around 50 tonnes of poached crab delivered to Japan about a year prior to it, according to the certificate).

Along these vessels are others which have a comparatively clean reputation:

f/vs Pacific Orion, Arctic Discovery, Matrix, Zaliv Olgy.  Two other vessels I could find no information on – TBN-1, and TBN-3.  It is possible some of them did not participate in crab poaching and falsification of documents. We hope in that case respective owners shall voice their outrage at poachers using their good names for illegal transactions.

“Crab mafia” is invincible?

This is just a small fragment of a larger picture – poachers’ days are busy and filled with industrious labor.

According to TINRO-CENTER, more than 40 thousand tones of Snow Crab alone were poached and sold in 2009.  It can be said without a doubt all shipments went through trusted agencies, by use of trusty, tried-and-true schemes of legalization-laundering, as described in the beginning of the article. I wouldn’t be surprised if «certificates of authenticity», signed by Ekaterina Poddubnaya are still in circulation. The only innovation in the process is the addition of Vietnam to Korea and China as another transfer base for poached catch.

Yet, again, as before, the final customer must be situated in the United States.

Of course, U.S. authorities cannot pretend everything is all right following the arrest of one of the biggest U.S. importers of Russian crab. Still, over the past ten years an entire pool of companies, specializing in purchasing poached Russian crab, has evolved. And while they will provide the demand, Russian poachers will gladly provide the supply.

They will always have «green zones» at their disposal on country borders and in customs zones. At least until the point in time when Russian crab will disappear without a trace.

Kirill Marenin.

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