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Obama plan to fight seafood fraud met with praise — and criticism

The Obama administration's new plan to fight seafood fraud and illegal fishing is being met with praise — and some criticism — by local and national groups involved in the issue.

The Obama administration's new plan to fight seafood fraud and illegal fishing is being met with praise — and some criticism — by local and national groups involved in the issue.

The groups lauded the overall approach to address black market operators who have exploited the United States' laws and regulations governing seafood imports.

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"This plan is proof that the Obama administration is committed to stopping seafood fraud and ending global illegal fishing," Beth Lowell, senior campaign director for the conservation group Oceana, said Monday.

But she and others said key elements of the plan do not go far enough to protect American consumers. Instead of tracing seafood along its entire journey to consumers, the Obama plan would focus monitoring from the point of catch to the entry into U.S. commerce.

"Tracing fish to the border doesn't take it far enough for the Maryland consumer who wants to know exactly what they're buying," said Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. "If the storyline drops at the border, we can't vote with our forks."

Lowell added, "From our seafood fraud study, we know there is mislabeling on the retail and grocery store levels, so we know there are issues past the border."

Seafood fraud and illegal fishing are major problems for the United States, the world's second largest importer of seafood after Europe. According to recent research published in the journal Marine Policy, as much as one in four wild-caught fish comes into the United States illegally.

After the Obama administration plan is fully implemented, imported crab, seabass and other seafood will not be allowed into the United States without proper source data.

The United States will require details of where, what, when and how the seafood is caught. The "traceability" recommendation is one of 15 detailed in the plan, which was released on Sunday at an industry trade show in Boston.

What happens after the fish enters U.S. commerce is a significant concern to Maryland consumers, watermen and the industry.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and local industry representatives have expressed concerns about seafood fraud, including the illicit selling of foreign crab as more expensive Chesapeake crab.

"Our prices are always undercut by companies who claim to have the same product but don't," said Bill Seiling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

Seiling, who is at the trade show, said it was important to extend traceability all the way to consumers. He noted that several companies at the show were demonstrating new technologies to test species of crab and other seafood.

On Monday, Baltimore-based InstantLabs announced new DNA-based tests for Atlantic and Coho salmon. The company said in a news release that its tests provide accurate DNA verification in less than two hours, and can be used by food wholesalers, processors and inspectors. InstantLabs already offers test kits to identify Atlantic Blue Crab, among other foods.

Another key area of the Obama plan attracting concern is enforcement.

The president's 2016 budget proposal includes an additional $3 million for enforcement at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the primary agency handling complex illegal import cases.

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But critics say the funds are going to the wrong place. As The Baltimore Sun reported last year, the agency cut the number of special investigators, who handle complex cases, by more than a third since 2008. Enforcement cases sent to the agency's general counsel and U.S. attorneys fell by 75 percent over that period.

The agency has instead begun diverting enforcement resources to patrol agents who focus on compliance and inspections.

Casey Brennan, chief of staff in NOAA's law enforcement division, said staffing is being reviewed, but he defended the shift toward patrol agents.

"If we want special agents to focus on long-term, complex investigations, freeing up their time with additional patrol agents is one way of doing that given the limited resources," he said.

Recently retired NOAA special agent Scottt Doyle disagrees. He said, "It's like saying I'm going to help out the homicide detectives by cutting them by half and replacing them with patrol officers."

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