- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

NEW YORK

The armed agents stroll into the frigid market, where the pungent stink of seafood assaults them. The smell pervades their clothes and the scaly, gooey water clings to their boots.

They pass burly men slinging slabs of fish with gleaming hooks and table saws ripping through frozen chunks of swordfish and tuna. Tempers flare as forklifts dart around the cavernous building known as the Fulton Fish Market.

Agents Chris Schoppmeyer and Scott Doyle barely notice any of this. They are interested only in clams today. They want to know which of the wholesalers have unknowingly bought the shellfish from a company involved in a smuggling operation.

They stop at a fish stand. Mr. Schoppmeyer recognizes the name. He’s got a bite. “They were definitely sold here,” Mr. Schoppmeyer says.

Such fishing expeditions play out on a regular basis for agents of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) little-known law-enforcement office.

The agents’ mission has taken on greater urgency in recent years as more and more illegally harvested seafood gets pulled from the water and makes its way onto the nation’s dinner plates.

Agency data show that in the 2006 budget year, about 750 investigations were opened in the Northeast region, which includes many of the nation’s biggest commercial ports such as Cape May, N.J., and Gloucester and New Bedford, Mass. That represents a nearly 108 percent increase from five years earlier.

Many of these raids have focused on a black market for seafood that stretches around the world.

Last year, a corporation from Uruguay and one of its executives pleaded guilty to trying to import and sell $3.5 million worth of Chilean sea bass, also known as “white gold” because it is so expensive. Chilean sea bass is a main target of illegal operations because of the huge market for the rare fish, resulting in tight fishing restrictions.

NOAA agents also helped uncover a South African corporation that was illegally harvesting massive quantities of rock lobster, devastating the species.

“That was the worse case I’ve seen and greed was the major catalyst for the overharvesting,” agent Jeffrey Ray said.

NOAA’s primary mission is to predict environmental changes, and provide industry and government decision-makers with a reliable base of scientific information. Within NOAA is the National Marine Fisheries Service, providing the checks and balances that govern fragile, watery ecosystems that are imperiled.

Studies warn of dire consequences to the global ecosystem because of illegal harvests. One study suggests the world’s oceans will run out of fish by 2048.

Officials say the United States provides ample opportunity for overfishing; more than one-fifth of the world’s most productive marine areas lie within the nation’s territorial waters.

Authorities say plenty of illegal fish is destined for restaurants and retail outlets in places like New York City, with its 8.2 million residents who each eat an average of about 17 pounds of seafood a year.

Every year, commercial fishermen in the U.S. land nearly 10 billion pounds of fish and shellfish valued at about $3.5 billion. The fishing industry employs 28 million people, and NOAA says the value of the ocean economy to the U.S. is more than $115 billion.

But the agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, performs this crucial enforcement task on a shoestring budget with only about 225 employees.

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