San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Illegal Fishing

Tracking seafood 'bait-to-plate' to end global fraud and protect threatened stocks

Arnold Bengis, described as a modern-day pirate, is the face of fishery crime.

He’s already served a five-year federal prison sentence for stealing massive amounts of rock lobster from South African waters and importing it to the United States. Now, a federal judge wants the former Long Island resident and two co-conspirators to fork over another $22.5 million in restitution to the South Africans on top of $7 million already collected in a separate criminal case.

The illegal fishing and fraud he engaged in is part of a global black market valued by experts at up to $23 billion.

It’s exactly what the Obama administration targeted on Sunday in announcing a new plan to stop seafood crime. The plan includes an ambitious system that aims to track every wild fish and crustacean from where it is caught to where it is shipped in the U.S.

Before any seafood enters the U.S. market, officials said, it must contain information that federal, state and local officials currently do not ask for: its origin, who caught it, when and with what. That data can be taken by any federal, state and local authority at a port and submitted to a central database for tracking.

Traceability from harvest to ports is “new, and that is the story,” said Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Government agencies across the board will be required to share and synthesize such information for the first time.

“The plan we are releasing today puts us on course to tackle these complex global challenges, with a new traceability program at its heart,” State Department Undersecretary Cathy Novelli said in a statement. “It also gives new urgency to our work towards the strongest possible international tools . . . which will ensure illegal fish cannot reach the global market.”

Traceability will take at least two years to phase in, Smith said, focusing first on threatened stocks such as Atlantic bluefin tuna and sea bass before full implementation by September 2016 traces all fish. The report directs a task force to determine best practices for better data collection and authority to board suspect ships at sea.

The need to enforce fishing limits was highlighted in a study last year in the journal Marine Policy that estimated that 85 percent of world’s commercial fish stock is being harvested up to or beyond its biological capacity “as our protein hungry planet” leans heavier than ever on a seafood diet.

The U.S. is the world’s second-largest market for imported seafood, behind the European Union, and more than 80 percent of what Americans eat arrives from aquatic farms and coasts off Russia, Chile, Thailand and Vietnam.

But of wild-caught seafood that ends up in U.S. fish counters, as much as 32 percent of it is imported illegally, often by boats operating lights-out at night, hauling in tons of animals that will never be counted.

Conservationist groups that pushed the administration to better protect global fishing stocks for years cheered the report. Michele Kuruc, vice president of ocean policy for the World Wildlife Fund, called it historic.

“For the near 30 years I’ve been doing this, we’ve never even come close to something like this report,” Kuruc said in a telephone interview from a seafood show in Boston where the plan was announced. It has what groups wanted, she said, a rollout of better tracing and enforcement with deadlines “that we can hold them accountable for.”

Beth Lowell, a director for the advocacy group Oceana, which pushed hardest for the action, called it “a strong signal to pirate fishers and fraudsters that they can no longer make a profit in the U.S. More eyes will be on a more transparent supply chain . . . to ensure all seafood . . . is legally caught and honestly labeled.”

But a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit industry organization that has questioned the science of such studies and the motives behind them, said that some traceability is necessary but that the administration’s plan is an overreach.

“We have serious concerns about talk of expanding this effort to all fish” when focusing only on fish at risk of being depleted “makes the most sense,” said the spokesman, Gavin Gibbons. For example, he said, “if tilapia . . . is not a wild-caught species, then why would the government expend resources to expand the effort to tilapia?” Finally, Gibbons asked, “Where is the money for this going to come from?”

The new recommendations for enhanced tracking and stronger enforcement of regulation by customs and law enforcement officials at ports were crafted by the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud.

Formed in August, the panel included representatives from 14 federal agencies led by the departments of State and Commerce, which oversees NOAA. Its final report is 43 pages with 15 recommendations, mostly about new policing legislation for port states and improving trade agreements. But the tracing system and stronger law enforcement stood out for members of the seafood industry and nonprofit conservationist organizations.

“This is not something we can snap our fingers and do well,” Smith said. “We’re doing it because we believe having in place a traceability system will allow us to manage this product into U.S. commerce.”

In anticipation of the plan, the president requested $3 million in his annual budget proposal for the Commerce Department, which has primary responsibility to police fish-trafficking crime. The money would pay for more enforcement officers.

NOAA’s enforcement has been the subject of criticism after the division cut its cadre of seafood investigators nearly in half over the past several years. Critics and some conservation groups link that to a 75 percent drop in the number of criminal cases its law enforcement division has brought. Without investigators, crime fighting is hopeless, they say.

“There isn’t a big group of individuals investigating seafood fraud,” said Scott Doyle, a recently retired NOAA investigator who now advises conservation groups and foreign governments on how to fight crime. “They cut the investigators in half,” he said. “That’s a poor response.”

Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator for operations at NOAA Fisheries, said it decreased the number of plainclothes special investigators and increased uniformed enforcers because “we weren’t adequately supporting our special agents.”

External reviews in 2010 found that investigators would uncover crimes, but there weren’t enough uniformed police to respond. Doremus praised Doyle, who worked at NOAA for 30 years, but said: “We have only so many people we can afford. These are uniformed officers. We’re adding to the force.”

It takes only a few dirty harvesters to bleed a fishery.

Bengis, 78, was a magnate who operated Hout Bay Fishing Industries near Cape Town, controlling a warehouse and a fleet of boats. He was licensed to fish rock lobster, but police proved he landed thousands of tons more than his fair share.

With a business partner, Jeffrey Noll, 63, of Boca Raton, Fla., and his son, David Bengis, 44, he smuggled lobster out of South Africa and imported it through two businesses in Manhattan.

Kuruc, a former federal attorney who helped prosecute Arnold Bengis before working for the wildlife fund, said the scheme was discovered when a financial manager became concerned and turned to South African police.

An investigation determined that Arnold Bengis had been overfishing lobster for 14 years ending in 2001 for import to the United States, ranking as the nation’s “biggest seafood case.” She recalled being flown to South Africa and driven two hours outside Cape Town for a top-secret meeting with the financial officer in 2000.

“We had to give a secret signal by flashing the lights when we arrived at the location,” she said, because officers guarding the witness said there was a contract for his life.

Kuruc went on to work for the law enforcement branch of NOAA, where about a decade ago 600 to 800 new criminal cases for seafood fraud were opened per year, she said.

“I would not be surprised if there’s another case out there” as big as Bengis’s, Kuruc said.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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