How sure are you that your tuna sandwich is really 100% tuna? Sure, that’s exactly what the can promised, but seafood fraud — the illegal practice of substituting one species of seafood for another — is a growing problem in the United States thanks, in large part, to a shrinking number of federal investigators.
Seafood fraud is about as lucrative as it is pervasive. About 25% of of all wild-caught seafood imports are part of an illicit trade, according to a study from earlier this year that was published in Marine Policy. Worse, some seafoods may be swapped with more than 70% of another species, like the wild salmon similar to the ones found in Alaska’s Kenai River. These illegal imports are worth between an annual $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion across the United States.
Though it might not sound like that big of a deal, seafood fraud is actually quite a dangerous crime. Mislabeled foods raise serious health concerns for those with lethal fish allergies, as well as for pregnant women who are trying to avoid the mercury in certain fish products. Seafood fraud also hurts the domestic economy, putting U.S. fishers at a competitive disadvantage, as their prices get undercut through illegal means.
To make the situation even worse, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization is losing its agents who handle the complex cases. Since 2008, NOAA has lost one-third of its agents. Now, there are only 93 agents who monitor the coast between New York and Virginia and check through 1.4 billion pounds of annual seafood imports.
The problem of seafood fraud has gotten so out of hand that it’s even attracted the attention of President Barack Obama, who warned that the black market for fish “threatens our oceans and undermines our economy and often supports dangerous criminals.”
President Obama has even directed several federal agencies, including the likes of NOAA, to devise a plan to crack down on black-market fishing and seafood fraud. Their plans are due before the end of December.
“If I was gonna be a criminal, I would be in the fish and wildlife smuggling business,” said NOAA Special Agent Scott Doyle. “Nobody has any idea what’s going on. They just buy fish.”