Israeli Plan to Import Duty-free Fish Runs Afoul of Fine Print

Rules allocate quotas to ensure big importers continue to control the market.

Boaz Lavi

The government’s promise of lower prices for imported fish before Passover may be confounded by the plan’s fine print, which specifies that only existing importers are eligible for duty-free imports, TheMarker has learned.

The rules, announced last month, suspended import tariffs on fish in the weeks before Pesach, which starts on April 22 this year. But the rule set a quota for duty-free imports based on the quantities of fish each importer brought into the country last year.

That rule that ensures completion in the market will be severely constricted because the biggest importers will have the biggest quotas while others, like the supermarket chains and many smaller importers, will not be eligible to bring in any fish.

Many of the chains had arranged to import large quantities of fish, in particular frozen amnon (tilapia), which accounts for about half of all frozen fish sales in Israel and is subject to a high tariff, 15 shekels ($3.89) a kilogram.

“I have 200 tons waiting at the port that we imported with the idea of lower prices to consumers. The idea was to sell imported frozen amnon at up to 15 shekels a kilogram instead of 29 shekels,” said Yossi Sabatto, trade VP at discount chain Rami Levy.

“After we brought in the fish we learned there are limits to the tariff cuts so we won’t get any exemption,” he said. “The chains ... will remain dependent on the big importers, which say they don’t plan to pass on the whole exemption to customers.”

Government sources acknowledged that the Agriculture Ministry rules gave duty-free quotas only to veteran importers. The Finance Ministry is trying to change the criteria but so far talks between the two ministries have been fruitless.

An industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon surrendered to pressure from domestic fish breeders. The Agriculture Ministry had not responded to queries by press time.