December 12, 2014
Recent Baltimore Sun Articles Highlight Issues with Federal Seafood Fraud Enforcement
BY: Brianna Elliott
The chances are that you’ve eaten seafood sometime recently—whether that be a fish fillet burger, a shrimp cocktail, sushi, or more. But, the seafood you consumed may not be what you think it is—and could be another species, or farmed when it was labeled as wild.
This concept, known as seafood fraud, is widespread across the U.S. It can occur at every step of the supply chain—distribution centers, grocery stores, or restaurants—and occurs when seafood is mislabeled or misrepresented. Seafood fraud is so extensive that a 2013 Oceana study found a third of 1,200 seafood samples from across the U.S. to be mislabeled. Similarly, a recent Oceana report on shrimp fraud found 30 percent of 143 shrimp product samples around the U.S. to be misrepresented.
Thus, seafood fraud is not only a real issue around the U.S., but a recent Oceana literature review that looked at more than 100 studies from around the world also found that it is a global problem. It can cheat consumers, jeopardize their health (pregnant women, for example, could unintentionally consume a fish with a high mercury content), and provide profits to pirate fishermen by allowing illegally caught seafood to enter the market.
Earlier this week, The Baltimore Sun published an article, “Seafood fraud cases plummet as NOAA cuts investigators,” on the number of seafood fraud enforcement declining—but not for good reason like better enforcement or honest fishing practices. Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—the federal agency charged with overseeing fishing activity in federal waters—is cutting the number of agents who investigate seafood fraud and other crimes.
The Baltimore Sun reports:
Nationwide, the group of special agents charged with investigating both criminal and civil illegal fishing operations is smaller than the Ocean City Police Department.
A review of NOAA records obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that enforcement cases nationwide have fallen even further. Since 2008, the number of civil and criminal cases sent to the agency’s general counsel and U.S. attorneys plunged from 793 to 215 — a drop of nearly 75 percent.
The article also points out how NOAA officers specializing in complex investigations have been cut by 147 to 93 since 2008. In another article published by The Sun late this week, several people associated with fishing associations in the Maryland region and southeast expressed concern about the lack of enforcement officers. At the same time, NOAA lauded its recent changes, saying the introduction of uniformed patrol agents and a more streamlined practice improved their efforts.
“The fact that so many special agents are being cut is alarming,” says Oceana campaign director Beth Lowell. “The Baltimore Sun’s article did a great job at highlighting a real challenge in stopping illegal fishing and seafood fraud.”
Lowell responded to “Seafood fraud cases plummet as NOAA cuts investigators” with in an opinion article this week, expressing the importance of tracking and tracing seafood. She also expressed how timely these articles are, as President Obama’s Task Force on Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud is expected to deliver its recommendations on how to stop seafood fraud and illegal fishing soon. The establishment of this Task Force was a historic step in the fight to end illegal fishing and stop seafood fraud , and is a step in the right direction for helping consumers trust in the seafood they purchase.
“We hope that the Task Force will provide robust, effective measures for tackling seafood fraud and illegal fishing,” says Lowell.