Seafood fraud: It’s a good time for bad guys


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
December 11, 2014

This past weekend the Baltimore Sun published a thorough feature story on the challenges of rooting out fraud within the U.S. seafood supply chain, from the water to the warehouse, with a keen focus on the regional favorite blue crab. The article adequately illustrated the inefficient, inconsistent and ineffective enforcement efforts federal agencies have put in place to keep the supply chain in line, despite overwhelming evidence that mislabeling, species substitution and short-weighting of seafood products harms a proud industry’s image and cheats consumers.

Even the good news in the article — seafood fraud cases are down 75 percent since 2008 — is misleading. This fact doesn’t mean seafood fraud is less prevalent, only that fewer cases are being sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) general counsel and prosecutors. And with a shorthanded NOAA cutting its enforcement manpower even further, as the article discovered, it makes it hard to believe that stamping out seafood fraud is actually a priority in the United States despite a high-profile promise to do just that.

The Obama administration’s Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud is awaiting recommendations, as soon as this month, from NOAA and other agencies about how to better address the issue. I’m guessing “diminish enforcement capabilities” won’t be on that list.

Yesterday I spoke with Andrew Cohen, a former special agent in charge at the NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), who also happened to write a letter to the editor at the Baltimore Sun applauding the story (expect a series) and further explaining the reasons for a recent realignment of the OLE and why special agents in the field are not to blame for the system’s failures. I asked him if the level of seafood fraud in the United States is truly “insane,” as it was described by two sources in the Sun article.

“It’s a good way to describe it,” said Cohen, who left the agency four years ago to start his own consulting business. “It’s pervasive. It’s systemic. It’s being tolerated because it might be keeping prices lower than they would otherwise, which is just a gut feeling. We’re not overstating when we say how pervasive the problem is.”

Count Cohen among those who are maddened by the apparent dichotomy of the federal mandate to root out illegal fishing and fraud set against the reality of deep budget cuts and gutted enforcement agencies.

“It’s nonsense. We want this accomplished but behind the scenes they’re cutting funding and the [Inspector General] is neutering the whole program. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” said Cohen, who wrote in his letter that the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General had recently commenced a “misguided” investigation of OLE that resulted in a profound shift of resources. The IG, considered a “bully” among colleagues, he wrote, has proven to have “little credibility in the professional law enforcement community.”

Seafood fraud happens because it can. If the United States is importing about one and a half billion pounds of seafood annually with less than 100 trained field agents to police the trade, across the entire country, what impact can law enforcement truly make? Years ago, when an Associated Press report that went viral found that only 1 percent of seafood imports are inspected, it seemed motivation enough to step it up.

The obstacles are huge: There is a cumbersome and complex fishery management system in place that many fishermen distrust, and nobody knows that better than Andrew Cohen, who upon leaving the Northeast office after three decades with the agency, said new leadership would be beneficial “symbolically, if nothing else.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Seafood List of acceptable market names is never enforced at the restaurant level where two-thirds of all seafood is consumed and where a vast majority of these bait-and-switch schemes uncovered by DNA tests are outed. This is a fragmented industry ill-equipped to police itself, despite great intentions like the Better Seafood Board. And with lax law enforcement on top of all that, which we’ve known was the case for years, the road for fraudulent activity is well worn.

Not only that, but according to Cohen, many U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the first line of defense against mislabeled seafood products, “might know a fish from a pillow but not much more than that.”

A stable of well-trained and knowledgeable inspectors at ports and at the docks, and a real commitment to enforcing economic integrity laws at all links of the supply chain is the only solution that would work. That means reasonable but not watered-down regulations (I’m in favor of mandating the use of Latin species names on every transaction) and the resources to enforce them. Until that’s in place there is no reason to expect true progress.

“The honest guys are going to suffer in the long run. The dishonest will profit in the short run,” said Cohen. “The pendulum will swing back. I’ve seen good times and lean times for law enforcement and good times and lean times for bad guys. Now is a good time for the bad guys.”

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