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No 'Bait-to-Plate' leaves big gaps for fish fraud

A review of known seafood fraud indicates that proposed federal protections would fall short of stopping some of the most common forms of fish fakery.

Researchers at the environmental advocacy group Oceana found that 21 of the 27 U.S. mislabeling cases since 2001 occurred inside the United States. However, the Obama administration's proposed rules trace seafood imports from foreign waters only to the U.S. border.

Oceana also found that 74 percent of the 50 mislabeled species are not among those covered by the proposed rule. Its recent report criticized the lack of tracing for common "impostor" fish often used as substitutes for more expensive fish — for example, selling imported swimming crab as "Chesapeake crab" or Asian catfish as "grouper."

The presidential task force that developed the rules focused on what its members believed had the "greatest ability to tackle the issues right now," said Jennie Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was on the panel.

She urged patience, saying that the rules are just a "first phase" for establishing a comprehensive traceability program "for all seafood species entering U.S. commerce."

Chesapeake-area lawmakers have pressed the Obama administration to crack down on seafood fraud, particularly when it comes to the bay's popular crustaceans. Sen. Barbara A Mikulski wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun that she will continue to push for broader coverage.

"This rule is a good start, but I will continue to work with the administration to implement bait-to-plate traceability," Mikulski wrote in reaction to Oceana's study. "We must end the practice of dangerous and deceptive labeling of imported crab meat that jeopardizes the livelihoods of Maryland's watermen."

Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, said the administration should focus on enforcing existing laws and regulations rather than creating new rules.

The Sun found that the number of NOAA enforcement cases plummeted after it began cutting special agents who investigate fish fraud in 2010.

NOAA's East Coast investigation into mislabeled crab shows the complexity of such fraud cases.

In 2014, NOAA investigators received a tip that Casey's Seafood Inc. of Newport News, Va., was selling foreign swimming crab as Atlantic blue crab, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk.

So NOAA agents sent eight containers of Casey's Seafood crab meat bought at Delaware and Virginia retail stores 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.

No charges have been filed against the company, and NOAA spokeswoman Allyson Rogers said the agency could not comment on ongoing cases.

Casey's Seafood has not returned calls seeking comment.

—Catherine Rentz

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