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Americans eat more seafood than just about anyone, and most of it is imported from abroad. A large portion of what's imported is caught illegally. The White House is drafting recommendations on what to do about that. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, fisheries experts are hoping the administration will devote more resources to fighting seafood piracy.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: This isn't just about, say, a plate of tilefish advertised as pricey red snapper at restaurant. It's about ships that secretly fish in protected areas where fish populations have been dangerously depleted or boats that exceed their own government's allowable catch.
MICHELE KURUC: Illegal fishing has been identified as the single greatest threat to achieving sustainable fisheries in the world today.
JOYCE: Michele Kuruc is head of marine policy at the World Wildlife Fund.
KURUC: Eighty-five percent of the fisheries around the world that are fished commercially are either at their absolute maximum or are already overfished.
JOYCE: Kuruc says illegal fishing outside the U.S. is plundering those fisheries - fish like sea bass or bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Sam Rauch, head of fisheries at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, says even people caught red-handed often get off easy. He recalls a Korean vessel recently discovered with 35 tons of illegally caught toothfish - also known as sea bass.
SAM RAUCH: Which we thought had a market value in the United States of $710,000 - Korea imposed a fine on this fisherman of $1,000. That was the price of doing business.
JOYCE: Illegal fishing occurs all over the world. The catch gets transferred to large tender vessels, for example, that then deliver it to processing plants on land where legal and illegal seafood is co-mingled. Rauch says the illegal catch is hard to track.
RAUCH: You're never really going to change the problem unless you can work with the other countries at the source.
JOYCE: The U.S. government is urging passage of an international treaty that would ban vessels known for illegal fishing from coming into any port. And NOAA and conservation groups are urging the White House to provide tools and money to track illegal seafood - things like GPS transponders on boats to track where they are or video cameras to see what they're catching. Many U.S. vessels are monitored this way now. Commercial crabbers in Alaska are especially eager to see a crackdown. Mark Gleason runs the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Organization. He says crab from Russian waters has swamped the U.S. market.
MARK GLEASON: If you look at the imports of Russian king crab over the past three years, I mean, you've seen a huge spike in those. And we've seen about a 40 percent decline in our price.
JOYCE: A lot of that spike comes from illegal crab caught by boats that ignore Russia's own catch quotas. And American crabbers can't compete. That may mean cheaper crab for Americans, but Paul Raymond says illegal fishing hurts American consumers. Raymond was an investigative agent at NOAA for 26 years. He gives this example - a foreign exporter ships some inexpensive fish caught overseas into an American port.
PAUL RAYMOND: If they then change that label to, let's say, U.S.-Gulf-of-Mexico-caught red snapper, instead of a $2-a-pound profit piece you're going to maybe be making about an $8-a-pound profit. That's a lot of illegal money that's going to be passed on to the consumer unknowingly.
JOYCE: Raymond says catching people like that is hard and getting harder. During his last years at NOAA - he's retired now - the agency drastically reduced the number of agents who pursue criminal cases. A recent investigation by the Baltimore Sun newspaper says the number of agents fell from 147 to 93 since 2008. A NOAA spokesperson put the staffing loss at 25 percent. Raymond says this hurts enforcement.
RAYMOND: Basically, you're losing the detective. Agents who are trained in everything from computer forensics to financial crimes to money laundering
JOYCE: Fisheries experts, like Raymond and WWF's Michele Kuruc, say they hope the White House report will not only reveal the extent of illegal fishing, but also provide more resources to actually stop it. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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