With seafood fraud a continuing problem in Maryland and across the nation, environmentalists, fishermen and lawmakers are expressing concern about a decline in the number of special investigative agents and enforcement cases at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Changes at the agency, which is responsible for protecting fishery resources in federal waters, could make it more difficult to investigate complex cases involving seafood that is mislabeled or caught in violation of quotas, they said, responding to the findings of a Baltimore Sun investigation.
The declines are "really troubling to see when we have these issues of illegal fish and seafood fraud," said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana, a conservation group that has found high levels of seafood fraud across the U.S. "You can't put one guy on a boat and expect to find a problem. To get a reduction of illegal fishing and seafood fraud, you need to be able to track a network of criminal activity."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, noted that President Obama has asked several federal agencies, including NOAA, to develop a plan for cracking down on seafood fraud and black-market fishing. That task force is expected to release recommendations this week.
Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement, "As the President moves ahead with his task force on combating seafood fraud I will be looking to see how NOAA's resources are best used to balance domestic fisheries enforcement — which are important for keeping our national fisheries sustainable — with that of the important work of investigating cases of international seafood fraud."
Seafood fraud is a widespread and lucrative enterprise. About 25 percent of all wild-caught seafood imports are part of the illicit trade, according to a study published this year in the journal Marine Policy. Those illegal imports are worth $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion annually across the United States, the world's second-largest importer of seafood.
The Sun found that the number of NOAA special agents who specialize in complex investigations has been cut by more than a third, from 147 to 93, since 2008, with further cuts in the works. Enforcement cases nationwide have fallen even further, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. 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.
Michele Kuruc, vice president of Marine Policy at World Wildlife Fund, said she considers the president's initiative, announced in June, a monumental opportunity not seen in her 30-year career. But she's worried about changes at NOAA in recent years.
"You have a concern when you see precipitous drop" in enforcement cases said Kuruc, a former fisheries lawyer at NOAA. "Cases are an important piece of data to look at when you try to understand the bigger picture of enforcement."
Mikulski wrote Obama in July, asking the administration to probe the fraudulent mislabeling of seafood as Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic blue crab meat. Her letter, which was also signed by other legislators in the region, said some businesses are importing foreign crabmeat, repackaging it and selling it as the more expensive product.
Crab fraud is a particular concern for Mid-Atlantic watermen and the industry.
Maryland Watermen's Association President Robert Brown said he was concerned about the lack of federal forces to investigate seafood fraud, which is hurting law-abiding companies in the domestic crab industry.
"It started up over the last few years because of the high price and limited availability of Maryland crab," Brown said. "It's limited, but it's false advertising."
Brown's colleague Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, wrote to the Obama administration in August that he was concerned about imported crab being illegally repackaged and relabeled.
Brown said that while he's worried about the decline of NOAA officers who may investigate such crime, he's also concerned about the drop in Maryland patrol officers who protect the Chesapeake's prized crabs and oysters. The number of patrol officers at the Maryland Natural Resources Police has fallen significantly since 2008, according to the agency.
Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, said he's seen the same kind of fraud in the Southeast, with companies selling foreign catfish costing $3 per pound as more expensive grouper costing at least $7 per pound. He worries about limited federal enforcement at NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration to control the problem, but is pleased that NOAA's staffing plan has shifted from investigative agents to patrol officers.
"It's not like [NOAA] is going after drug dealers," he said.
NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement is revising the staffing plan to align its workforce "in the most effective way possible to address mission priorities," according to agency spokesperson John Thibodeau. NOAA officials also say they use other methods to ensure compliance, including written warnings and officers who work with fishermen to see that they report their catch correctly.
In response to recent concerns, Todd Dubois, assistant director of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, said, "We are confident that the staffing and other changes made since 2012 will improve the agency's ability to deter violations of law by combining focused and effective criminal enforcement with more extensive compliance assistance, monitoring, patrols, and inspections." Dubois added that they are also strengthening partnerships with other state and federal agencies "to protect legitimate fishermen."
Some of the change at NOAA in recent years resulted from complaints by fishermen in the Northeast, especially Massachusetts. They balked at the agency's regulations and enforcement measures, triggering an investigation by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Inspector General.
After the inspector general found problems in NOAA enforcement practices, the agency streamlined regulations and standardized penalties for violations. NOAA also began a shift toward uniformed patrol agents, responding to an inspector general's finding that NOAA had a high number of special agents trained to do criminal investigations even though relatively few criminal cases were prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the stock of prized New England cod continued its decline. The fishery was declared an economic disaster in 2012.
"The take-away lesson is to not sacrifice long-term goals over short-term problems," said Eric Schwaab, a former assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries who is now the chief conservation officer for the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Correspondence between NOAA leaders and outside law enforcement and regulators shows there were warnings years ago about the impact of changes such as reducing the number of special agents.
In the winter of 2010, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and general counsel Louis Schiffer asked experts to review the inspector general's recommendations.
In a November 24, 2010, letter to Lubchenco, U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter, who was chair of the attorney general's Environmental Issues Working Group, highlighted the importance of special agents who are trained to handle complex criminal cases.
"We are concerned that the conflating of civil and criminal programs may result from a failure to appreciate the distinct role NOAA Special Agents play in federal criminal enforcement," Cotter wrote. "The uniformed officers in the fisheries program play a vitally important role in enforcement, but it is a very different role from that played by Special Agents. … And we respectfully disagree with any suggestion that challenges in the civil enforcement program, predominantly in one region of the country, necessitate an overhaul of a tremendously successful nationwide criminal enforcement program."
Eric Schaeffer, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Civil Enforcement, wrote Schiffer that while enforcement of the law must be even-handed, "defendants are rarely happy to be caught up in an enforcement action," and NOAA should be careful to preserve its ability to deter would-be violators.
Now, after hearing about the declines in special agents and enforcement cases, Schaeffer worries that after a while, "enforcement staff gets the message that someone complains and you get in trouble. If the message is to not take chances on enforcement because of blowback, that would not be good."