"Traceability is a key tool for combating illicit activities that threaten valuable natural resources, increase global food security risk and disadvantage law-abiding fishermen and seafood producers," said Kathryn D. Sullivan, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The proposed rules would apply only to seafood at "high risk" for poaching and fraud, such as blue crab, red snapper and shrimp, but officials want eventually to expand them to all imported seafood.
The rules would mandate catch data along a chain of custody, from the point of harvest to entry into the United States. The idea is to eliminate the import of seafood poached from ocean reserves, and the substitution of different species for more expensive fish.
President Barack Obama directed his administration in June 2014 to develop solutions to fight illegal fishing and seafood fraud — challenges that exacerbate the problem of dwindling fish populations. A federal task force issued draft rules that December.
The final proposed rules fall short of "bait to plate" — tracing seafood all the way to the point of sale to the U.S. consumer — the approach favored by many local officials, conservationists and members of the industry to cut down on domestic repackaging fraud.
The conservation group Oceana reported in 2014 that more than a third of the crab cakes tested at restaurants in Maryland and the District of Columbia were not the local blue crab advertised, but imported crab. Crab cakes at restaurants in Baltimore and Annapolis had the highest rates of mislabeling, at 46 percent and 47 percent, the group said.
Oceana campaign director Beth Lowell described the proposed rules as a good first step.
"Without bait-to-plate traceability, this will not protect Maryland watermen and seafood businesses from falling victim to fraud," she said.
Jack Brooks, co-owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, wrote to the federal task force in 2014 to explain how foreign crab ends up labeled as Chesapeake crab.
"Unscrupulous domestic companies, seeing a quick and profitable opportunity, simply open this crabmeat and put it in a domestic container," he wrote. He said such businesses can net an extra $4 and $9 per pound.
John Henderschedt, director of NOAA Fisheries' Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection, said tracing seafood imports all the way to the plate would take the agency beyond its federal jurisdiction and require dealing with many more state and local agencies.
Del. Eric Luedtke has sponsored a bill in the last two General Assembly sessions that would require restaurants to list the country of origin of seafood on the menu. But the legislation, which is opposed by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, has not advanced.
"I think the proposed rule is a strong step forward," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "But Maryland needs to take aggressive action to take the final step of ensuring traceability all the way to the plate. Marylanders should be able to be confident that our Maryland crab cakes don't include imported crab."
The public will have 60-day comment period on the federal rules. They are expected to be finalized by early fall.
An earlier version of this story misnamed the conservation group Oceana. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.