When grouper appears on a restaurant menu, a diner ought to be confident that grouper is served, not catfish from Thailand. At the grocery store, a container labeled "Chesapeake Bay" crab meat should actually contain crab from the Chesapeake Bay. And no seafood lover should have to unknowingly support poaching and other forms of illegal ocean fishing when they purchase fish or shellfish to feed their family.
Yet the state of enforcement of seafood regulations in the U.S. is abysmal. As chronicled in great detail last Sunday by The Sun's Catherine Rentz, the illegal fish trade and seafood fraud are running rampant and boosted in no small measure by cutbacks within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It's estimated that about a quarter of all the imported wild seafood can be traced to illegal fishing, a $2.1 billion business.
The consequences of this are worrisome and not just because some unsuspecting consumers are getting ripped of when they are served amberjack instead of a pricier plate of mahi mahi. When the seafood trade is inadequately monitored — and the dramatic decline in civil and criminal cases strongly suggests that's the case — there are devastating environmental consequences as species around the world are overfished, not to mention a heightened risk to human health and a loss of jobs to honest fishermen and others in the seafood industry.
Just within Maryland, we have seen the problem first hand as imported Asian crab meat is labeled as local blue crab, a proverbial bait-and-switch tactic that can make thousands of dollars for the perpetrators involved but denies local watermen and crab pickers the profits they are rightly due. Imagine if meat labeled "beef," "chicken" or "pork" was actually from a different animal altogether and harvested illegally in a foreign country? The U.S. wouldn't tolerate it, and there'd be a huge outcry from the farming industry and processors like Perdue Farms. So why should NOAA have a third fewer special investigators today than it did six years ago?
NOAA isn't the only suspect in this, of course. For years, politicians here and elsewhere have pressured regulators to take it easy on fishermen whenever they are caught violating conservation laws. And the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has reduced the number of its patrol officers, too, as part of the state's recession-related budget reductions.
Indeed, it's easy to understand the rise of the farm-to-table movement and the insistence of chefs like Baltimore's Spike Gjerde to only buy local seafood and only from those who catch or farm it. When a consumer can't trust what's in the refrigerated case to be safe (caught in waters not teaming with bacteria, for instance) and truthfully labeled, what real choice is there?
At the direction of the White House, representatives of NOAA and other federal agencies are currently working on a plan to reduce illegal fishing and seafood fraud. They need to move quickly, and Congress must be willing to support those efforts even if it means spending more on enforcement. That U.S. consumers can't trust the seafood they might buy at the market today to be what the seller claims is a pretty sorry state of affairs.