TALLINN - Estonian fishermen have been hit hard by Russia's decision to ban fish imports from the EU. On Nov. 24, Russia unexpectedly began rejecting fish stocks being transported through Estonian border checkpoints, citing concerns about the certification of the marine products. The move has sparked a diplomatic row, with Estonia's foreign ministry firing off a cable to Moscow seeking a "detailed, fact-based explanation" for the sudden ban.
In the meantime, Estonia's fishing industry is reeling at the loss of one of its biggest trading partners.
Fish exports to Russia amount to 500 million kroons (32 million euros) per year, and commentators said the ban would cripple many small and medium sized businesses.
Valdur Noormagi, spokesman for the Estonian Association of Fisheries, said any concerns Russia might have with Estonia's certification process were ill-founded.
"They believe that Estonians cheat on the quality certification, and that there are lots of illegal fish caught. Of course this is not true," Noormagi told The Baltic Times.
He said Russian inspectors made a detailed tour of Estonia only four weeks ago, but did not express concern at that time.
"They looked at Estonian businesses wanting to export fish products, and they got lots of knowledge about our certification system," Noormagi said. "There was no question from the Russian side then. I think there are some political reasons behind this."
The ban has arrived at a particularly inopportune moment. Noormagi said it was currently "rush hour" in the fishing industry.
"This is a good period to catch fish. The quality is good and the stock is high. We do not use all our quota in Estonia, so much of it has to be exported to Russia or the Ukraine. Now trade to Russia has stopped, and we can only wait for an answer," he said.
With many border checkpoints closed to marine imports, fish can only be transported through small border points in Finland, Latvia, Belarus and Kaliningrad.
Estonia's foreign minister issued a "please explain" note to its Russian counterparts. The Russian ambassador was handed the diplomatic note on Nov. 27.
"The note requests urgent and fact-based explanation of the situation concerning the barring of the import of fish and fish products into the territory of the Russian Federation through crossings on the Estonian-Russian border," the ministry spokeswoman said.
She said the note also asked for information about possible solutions to the embargo.
Meanwhile, the Estonian Veterinary and Food Board said it would raise the matter with European chief veterinary officials in Brussels.
Argo Partel, head of the board, said he hoped Brussels would be able to intervene and restore regular trade.
Russia's Estonian seafood shopping bill this year so far includes 28,424 tons of frozen fish, 4,075 tons of canned fish, 1,724 tons of shellfish and shrimp, 1,090 tons of smoked fish, 987 tons of refrigerated fish, and 620 tons of fish fillet.
Russia purchases approximately 60 percent of its imported fish from Baltic states.
It is not the first time Russia has shut down seafood trade from Baltic states.
A temporary ban was slapped on Latvian canned sprats when Russian inspectors found high levels of benzopyrene, a cancer-causing substance.
The recent issue with Latvia had them agreeing to work out a common standard with Russia, only days before the fresh ban on imports was imposed.
Russia has expressed further concern about the safety of other products from EU nations, particularly Romania and Bulgaria, which will join the EU in January.
Officials said that until the EU could verify the safety of food being exported from Bulgaria and Romania, all food imports could be questioned.
A similar dispute over Polish food exports to Russia was believed to be behind Poland's controversial decision to block a new EU-Russia partnership agreement.