Chesapeake crab caper results in felony charges

More than three years after federal fish fraud investigators were tipped off that a Virginian seafood company was selling foreign crabmeat labeled as more expensive domestic crabmeat, federal prosecutors filed felony charges against Casey’s Seafood owner, James R. Casey, 74, of Poquoson, Va.

At the time of the tip in 2014, The Baltimore Sun had begun following special agents tracking crab fraud among other kinds of seafood fraud.

The Sun found that, despite increased concerns about such fraud, the number of enforcement cases brought by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency had plummeted after the agency began cutting the “special agents” who investigate fish fraud in 2010.

As the world’s seafood resources decline, substituting other species of seafood for rarer and more expensive ones has become a lucrative business as well as a growing concern for governments and health officials.

Jack Brooks, co-owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, described how easy it is to commit fraud with crabmeat in a 2014 letter he wrote to the federal task force establishing the new rules to mitigate seafood fraud. It happens, he wrote, when “unscrupulous domestic companies, seeing a quick and profitable opportunity” simply put imported crabmeat into a domestic container.

Brooks, who processes crab, added that there is "no or very limited enforcement" of such fraud, which can net businesses an extra $4 to $9 per pound. That leaves domestic competitors with higher costs and puts seafood-related jobs in jeopardy.

During their investigation, NOAA agents sent eight containers of Casey's Seafood crabmeat bought at stores in Delaware and Virginia to a laboratory in College Park for DNA testing. The results confirmed the tip: seven of the eight Casey's containers labeled as "Product of the USA" contained swimming crab found only outside U.S. waters, according to court documents.

A survey released in April 2016 found that more than a third of the crab cakes sampled at 86 restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C., were found to be not local blue crab as advertised, but imported crab. Crab cakes at Baltimore and Annapolis restaurants had the highest rates of mislabeling: 46 percent and 47 percent, respectively, according to the study by the conservation group Oceana.

Earlier this month, the U.S. began enforcing the new rules on seafood fraud through the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which is designed to block mislabeled fish from entering the country.

Blue crab is among the priority species for the program, which requires importers to track the seafood from the time it is caught to the time it reaches the U.S. border. However, the program does not track the seafood once it enters the country, when some of the fraud is committed, as prosecutors allege with Casey’s Seafood.

According to documents filed in a Virginia federal court, Casey directed employees to repackage at least 397,917 pounds of crabmeat worth millions of dollars inside his Newport News-based Casey’s Seafood business. He imported crabmeat from Indonesia, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Central and South America and then placed the meat into containers labeled as “Product of the USA,” or placed labels “Product of the USA” over foreign labels, according to court documents. If convicted, Casey could face up to five years in prison.

The phone line for Casey’s Seafood returned only a busy signal when the Sun reached out for comment. James Casey’s public defender, Keith Loren Kimball, declined to comment at this time.

The earlier Sun investigation found that the number of federal “special agents” employed to investigate such fish fraud had plummeted from 147 in 2008 to 93 in 2014. Their numbers have since fallen to 67 — smaller than the Ocean City police force. In their place, NOAA has increased “enforcement officers” from 29 to 60 over the last four years. They focus on patrol and compliance.

The agency, however, recently released job announcements looking for nine new special agents.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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