Three recently retired senior federal agents expressed concern last week about the lack of resources to investigate the black market fishing industry.
Their message came weeks before the Obama administration is expected to issue recommendations to better combat seafood fraud and what is known as "IUU," or illegal, unreported and unregulated fish.
"There are more people in this room thinking about IUU than doing IUU," Scott Doyle, former assistant special agent in charge of the Northeast region for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said to a group of people gathered at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.
As of December 2014, NOAA had 93 special investigators nationwide — fewer than the number of officers in the Ocean City Police Department. The number of agents trained to uncover complex seafood fraud has declined by more than a third since 2008.
The United States, one of the largest fish importers in the world, helps to drive illegal fishing across the world, according to Michele Kuruc, the World Wildlife Fund's vice president for marine policy.
Approximately one out of every four wild-caught imports into the United States is estimated to be illegal, according to research published last year in the journal Marine Policy.
Stopping those illegal imports is problematic, said Paul Raymond, one of the former NOAA agents who spoke at the event sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. "The presidential mandate is saying we should do this, but we don't have the investigators to do it," he said.
Doyle said one problem is that agents have to sell fish investigations as being "sexy" because illegal imports are more difficult to spot than easily identifiable drugs. But, he said, the investigations often pay for themselves in savings to U.S. fishermen, restitution and confiscated products.
He and the other agents described cases in which illegal fish brokers lived like "multimillionaire drug lords."
Former agent Gregg Houghaboom described the wealth accumulated by one Central American businessman who flooded the U.S. market with illegal lobster.
"I would have liked to live in the cabana of the guy who took care of his tennis courts," he said.