WASHINGTON — — The Obama administration announced Tuesday an initiative to track every fish sold in the United States — a move designed to crack down on illegal fishing, mislabeling of seafood and related problems.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading the push for new ocean conservation measures, said the measures will "ensure all seafood sold in the U.S. is both sustainable and traceable, meaning all customers will know exactly who caught it, where and when."
The United States plays a big role in the world's seafood market; it's the largest importer after Japan. But an estimated 20 percent to 32 percent of the wild-caught imports are illegal and unreported, according to a study published this year in the journal Marine Policy.
Tuesday's announcement, delivered in a taped message from the president and in person by Kerry at an "Our Ocean" conference in Washington, was well-received by a crowd representing 80 countries and several environmental organizations.
But the proposal quickly drew criticism from congressional Republicans, who contend that the administration over-regulates natural resources industries and that the president has overreached his constitutional powers.
"This is yet another example of how an imperial president is intent on taking unilateral action, behind closed doors, to impose new regulations and layers of restrictive red tape," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, a Republican from the state of Washington.
Among the ocean plan's most ambitious and controversial steps would be expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument southwest of Hawaii. In January 2009, President George W. Bush gave monument status to nearly 87,000 square miles around uninhabited islands, an area that is home to thousands of migratory birds, fish and mammals.
A White House fact sheet states that the administration is considering an expansion of the reserve, but plans to first consider input of fishermen, scientists and other stakeholders.
Ray Hilborn, a marine biologist and University of Washington professor who spoke at the conference, said he is skeptical of the reserve's purpose, adding that he is not aware of any significant fisheries that would be shut down as a result of the expansion. However, the proposal could eventually more than double the area of ocean protected by the United States, environmental groups said, and block the incursion of future fisheries.
The president also established a task force of at least a dozen federal agencies to develop recommendations to better combat seafood fraud and illegal fishing. The administration did not offer details on how the fish might be tracked.
The United States imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, and most fish is flown or shipped from China and Thailand, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Little is known about its path here, but enforcement cases show a range of problems.
The tuna sashimi or sea bass purchased in restaurants might have been caught beyond legal fishing limits, or mislabeled. Most of the time, consumers are left in the dark as to where exactly their fish originates, officials say.
Meanwhile, more than 85 percent of the world's fisheries are fished beyond sustainable limits, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of that is due to illegal fishing practices.
"Traceability is essential to a good management system," says Eric Schwaab, chief conservation officer of Baltimore's National Aquarium and former acting assistant secretary for conservation and management for NOAA. "You can't have a management system without a way to distinguish the illegal from the legal imports."
He hopes traceability requirements proposed by the federal government will help curb illegal practices abroad.
A 2013 study by the nonprofit Oceana found that 25 percent to 70 percent of popular fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod are mislabeled in the United States, disguising cheaper and less desirable fish.
In Washington D.C. region, for example, a sampling by the group found that the "white tuna" sold in some sushi restaurants actually was escolar, a snake mackerel that can have digestive side-effects. "Red snapper" samples were most often tilapia, a much cheaper, farmed freshwater fish.
Even eco-labeled fish may be manipulated. A 2011 study published in the journal Cell Biology analyzed Marine Stewardship Council-certified "Chilean sea bass" fish in several states, including Maryland, and found that 15 percent were actually caught in an area that was not certified as sustainable.
This year, Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced state legislation that would have required restaurant operators to identify the origin of their crabs for customers.
"Marylanders love their crab, but there is virtually no way to know where one's crab cake is coming," said Luedtke, whose bill did not pass.
Baltimore-based crabber Richard Young, who testfied in support of the bill in Annapolis, said he often drives by crab stands selling "Maryland crabs" when its not crabbing season in the state.
Watermen who have often opposed fishery enforcement measures are welcoming a crackdown on illegal imports, which can undercut their business and increase pressure to fish illegally in domestic waters.
Maryland Watermen's Association President Robert T. Brown looks forward to learning more about what the president announced. "We need to have safeguards on preventing illegal fish or mislabeled fish coming into the country," he said.
Kerry said political will and enforcement of the new measures will be key to making any traceability efforts work. "Without enforcement, any plan we create will take us only so far."
Reporter Neela Banerjee of Tribune's Washington bureau contributed to this article.