Addressing growing concerns over seafood fraud, a presidential task force called Tuesday for expanded enforcement and a new program giving consumers more information about the origins of the imported fish, crab and other seafood they eat.
The new program would trace seafood from its harvest to its entry into U.S. commerce, with the first phase focusing on species that are of "particular concern" for fraud or illegal catch. For example, shipments of sushi or snapper fillets — which are often fraudulently substituted with a cheaper species or caught illegally overseas — would need documentation that included details about when, where and how it was caught. Such data are already required from domestic fisheries.
The recommendations were sparked by President Barack Obama's June directive that federal agencies find better ways to combat seafood fraud. While the United States has improved most of its own fish stocks through regulation, the country's mounting appetite for imports has helped fuel an international black market worth as much as $23 billion annually. That fraud ultimately harms legitimate fishermen and companies in the U.S., the president has said.
"Seafood is one the most traded commodities in the world," Catherine Novelli, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, said in a statement Tuesday. "Consumers should be able to have confidence their seafood was legally and sustainably harvested."
Novelli, who was co-chair of the task force, said the recommendations are designed to stop the trade of illegal fish, promote the sale of sustainable seafood and end illegal fishers' unfair advantage over law-abiding operations.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski wrote to the Obama administration in July, asking that it look into complaints that some companies were substituting less-expensive foreign crab for domestic crab. "I am glad to see this Task Force is making forward progress and I concur with many of their recommendations," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement Tuesday.
The U.S. is the second-largest seafood importer in the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As much as a third of wild-caught imports are estimated to be illegal, according to a study published in the journal Marine Policy this year. And federal regulators say that the dramatic growth of imports has helped fuel the international black market.
A recent investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that despite concern over illegal fish trafficking and seafood fraud, NOAA has cut the number of agents who specialize in complex investigations by about 33 percent since 2008. An agency staffing plan calls for further reductions, while the patrol staff increases five-fold over 2010 levels.
As those staffing changes take place, the number of civil and criminal enforcement cases sent to NOAA and U.S. attorneys has fallen by 75 percent since 2008.
Agency officials have defended the staffing changes. They said that fewer cases did not necessarily mean less effective enforcement, and noted that NOAA has increased its focus on seeking compliance before pushing for criminal or civil penalties.
The task force did not specifically address NOAA's enforcement resources. But it did include a recommendation for "additional enforcement tools," including "increased penalties" and "investigative subpoena authorities," and called for more coordination with state and local governments.
"I would stress that this is a critical step to gather feedback," said Russell Smith, NOAA's deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries. "We want input on what will work as far as creating a more coordinated program for tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and preventing seafood fraud domestically."
Smith said that could include sharing resources and information among other enforcement agencies that oversee the seafood industry. "What's important to note here is that whatever the final plan, it will bring to bear the resources of the entire task force, not just NOAA resources."
Thus far, efforts to crack down on illegal fishing and seafood fraud have been disjointed, with NOAA, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies collecting disparate information with insufficient coordination, the task force said. Both industry leaders and environmentalists have praised the effort to coordinate efforts among all regulators.
The task force had representatives from 15 federal agencies, and its six-month review included public meetings and conference calls with stakeholders. The public will be able to review and comment on the recommendations over a period that begins Thursday and ends Jan. 20.
Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she'll continue to monitor how NOAA changes its enforcement arm. But she noted that other agencies need to address the issue as well.
"In many ways, trafficking fish resembles trafficking counterfeit goods or illicit contraband — it has an origin, it has to be transported, and it has a market," she said. "If we're going to tackle this problem, we need to attack every part of the supply chain. I'm glad the report highlighted the role of other federal law enforcement agencies, especially those at the Department of Justice, and I'll be looking to see how well all these agencies can work better together — locally, nationally and internationally."
While conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund are pushing for new regulations, industry leaders urge caution.
"The National Fisheries Institute supports practical recommendations that focus on strengthening enforcement and enhancing tools already in place," John Connelly, president of the industry group, said in a statement.
Richard Stavis of Stavis Seafoods, a Boston-based seafood company that imports products from 48 countries, said, "If done right, this traceability program will be fantastic. If not, it could be problematic."
Stavis said there's no simple way to understand the legality of fishing practices of overseas producers. He said he conducts on-site visits and works with reputable producers, but more data and oversight could be helpful.
"As an importer, I would like more tools," he said. "If I wanted to look at a ledger to see what was legal, there are challenges. How do you know the fish were [taken] within limits?"
However, he's leery of the costs that might be imposed on importers, and is withholding praise until he sees the final version of the recommendations.
Michele Kuruc, vice president of marine policy at the World Wildlife Fund, was optimistic about the recommendations, saying they "open the door" to ending illegal fishing. But she noted that many details must be finalized, and Obama "must turn these recommendations into decisive policy and regulations to ensure all seafood sold in the U.S. is traceable to legal sources."