On a recent afternoon, Gregg Houghaboom pointed to a photo of a fish fillet and asked a room full of ocean experts to identify it.
They couldn’t. Absent a head, tail and scales, it looked like a hunk of grouper — but it was actually Lake Victoria perch.
Houghaboom’s point was simple: It’s hard to uncover seafood fraud, even when you’re looking for it. The perch was sold to grocery stores and restaurants as grouper, for a premium price, until Houghaboom, a special agent at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helped expose the fraud.
"It’s extremely nuanced. It’s not like if you’re catching a vehicle with a trunk full of heroin and cocaine," Houghaboom said at a recent panel discussion on illegal fishing at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. "If you catch a boat with a load of lobster in it, you have to find out … where it was harvested from, if it’s in season, if it’s undersized, if it’s egg bearing. There’s a lot more to it."
Houghaboom is now retired. But he and some of his former colleagues are concerned that NOAA doesn’t have enough investigators to tackle such cases, even as the Obama administration makes illegal fishing and seafood fraud a priority.
In December, a presidential task force released a set of recommendations to tackle illegal, underreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Greenwire, Dec. 16, 2014). Notably absent was any mention of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.
"There’s one presidential mandate that says, ‘Hey, you should do IUU fishing’ … but then the folks who are experts at it aren’t mentioned," Scott Doyle, another retired agent, told a WWF audience numbering about 30. He later added: "There are more people in this room right now thinking about IUU than doing IUU."
The recommendations — still in draft form — don’t ignore enforcement. But they focus on beefing up collaboration, rather than feet on the ground. For example, one suggests the development of a strategy for agencies to better share data and resources to prevent IUU. Another focuses on broadening agency enforcement authorities through congressional action.
Meanwhile, the number of NOAA’s investigators is in decline. The Office of Law Enforcement has 92 special agents, tasked with investigating both domestic and international cases for the entire country. In 2012, that number was 114; in 2006, it was 157.
A Baltimore Sun article last year linked that decline with a 75 percent drop in the number of cases sent to NOAA’s general counsel since 2008. In 2014, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service opened 94 criminal cases and sent 164 cases to NOAA’s general counsel, according to the agency.
Some of that was expected. In 2010, the Commerce Department inspector general released a report after Northeastern fishermen complained of overly punitive action from NOAA. The IG questioned what it called a "criminal-enforcement-oriented structure," wherein NOAA had too many special agents who were too aggressive for regulatory infractions.
In response, NOAA cut back on investigators and beefed up patrol officers. But now it is faced with a renewed focus on tackling international seafood fraud and the complex cases that go along with it.
In its fiscal 2016 budget request, the agency asks for 15 additional positions to combat IUU. The breakdown follows the current workforce plan, with more officers hired than special agents. Of a total 20 potential hires (to add 15 positions and fill five vacancies), 14 would be officers and three would be special agents. The remaining two positions would be for a policy analyst and an investigative analyst.
Todd Dubois, assistant director of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, acknowledged that his office needs more special agents. But he said it’s not as simple as going back to 2010, when NOAA had 15 enforcement officers. The agency now has 29 officers.
Officers can act as liaisons with customs agents and other agency officials to help spot potential fraud, he said. NOAA needs both.
"It’s not fair to say, ‘Gee, we don’t need officers and we only need agents.’ I think that’s too simplistic," Dubois said, later adding: "I think over time we will find the right answer. More enforcement officers will give agents the time to do the investigations."
Needle in a haystack
At the WWF panel, Houghaboom, Doyle and a third former special agent, Paul Raymond, used a decade-old case to emphasize how daunting such investigations can become.
In 1999, David McNab owned the largest lobster fleet in Honduras. When NOAA investigators seized one of his U.S. shipments, they found more than 11,000 pounds of undersized lobster and more than 5,000 pounds of egg-bearing females.
It took the agency years to build a case. First, officials had to persuade a U.S. attorney to take a "fish case." Then they had to follow a convoluted paper trail. When they stopped McNab’s attempts to smuggle the lobster by ship, he started to smuggle it through commercial airlines.
In the end, evidence at trial showed 40 illegal shipments worth more than $17 million.
"It took us literally over three years to do this case," Raymond said. But he acknowledged that traceability — a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s IUU plan — would change that math. "From a traceability standpoint, this case could have been done in maybe six months."
Environmental groups have emphasized the need for traceability, or documenting a fish from boat to plate. In its IUU recommendations, the presidential task force laid out an 18-month deadline to establish the first phase of a program.
Michele Kuruc, vice president for ocean policy at WWF, emphasized in an email that enforcement and traceability are intertwined.
While WWF has no plan to call for more special agents at NOAA, the advocacy group "does support strong enforcement as part of the solution to combat IUU, including the appropriate number of skilled special agents who can work the complex, large-scale cases," Kuruc said. "Without a new system of traceability and proof of legality, enforcement will not be enough, though."
NOAA has so far focused on partnerships in an effort to spot illegal activity more effectively. It now works with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to "enhance targeting efforts" on commercial imports; that aims to alleviate the "needle in a haystack" problem of finding the illegal fish amid container ships full of legitimate catch.
The agency also provides training to developing countries on how to spot IUU fishing. And it aims to work with other countries. In 2011, for example, the Russian government helped in an investigation that resulted in the seizure of 112 metric tons of illegally harvested Russian king crab.
Dubois called it a "multi-layered approach to law enforcement" and pointed to several successful international cases in the last couple of years.
In one, NOAA helped dismantle a smuggling ring for narwhal tusks. In another, a U.S. Coast Guard ship apprehended a Chinese driftnet vessel in the north Pacific Ocean, as part of a partnership that puts fishery enforcement officers from China on Coast Guard ships. And in 2013, three convicted smugglers of South African rock lobster were ordered to pay $22.5 million in restitution to the South African government.
"We would certainly always be better suited with more resources. That’s not always possible," Dubois said. The approach for now: better data, more partnerships and leveraging what resources already exist.