Federal government to set up task force to combat unregulated, illegal fishing

To crack down on illegal fishing and mislabeled seafood, the Obama administration announced plans Tuesday for a federal task force to combat black-market fishing.

Larry Toomer, owner of the Bluffton Oyster Co., said the abuses are real and costly.

"There's a big problem with mislabeled fish," Toomer said. "I'm all for tightening down on it."

The task force -- created by executive order -- will include representatives from nearly every federal department and work to solve a problem that pulls between $10 billion and $23 billion from the global fishing industry each year, according to a White House news release.

Between 20 percent and 32 percent of fish imported into the United States is a product of illegal or unregulated fishing, according to the conservation group Oceana. That's a problem in a country where 91 percent of seafood is imported, up from 86 percent in 2012, S.C. Seafood Alliance executive director Frank Blum said.

Unregulated fishing leads to mislabeled fish, a growing problem in Beaufort County, according to Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club president David Harter. For instance, the expensive black grouper being sold by a restaurant might actually be red grouper; the "wild caught" Atlantic salmon might actually be farm-raised.

Harter said some types of salmon may be given more exotic sounding names to mask that they have been farm-raised -- for instance, calling them Scottish or Tasmanian salmon.

In some cases, the species of fish served might not be the fish that is advertised on the menu, Toomer said. Price can be a good indication of such deception, he said. For instance, grouper sold for $8 or $9 per pound instead of $18 or $19 is likely not real grouper.

Restaurants don't have to label the fish they serve, so someone not familiar with fish varieties and their different tastes could be duped, Harter said.

Blum said making it known where seafood comes from would be a big step toward curbing fraud. Supermarkets and retail chains label their fish, but there is no national system. He said some companies already use tags that can be scanned to track the fish to its origin, but implementing that system for widespread use could be expensive.

Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort, said many restaurants in Beaufort County serve locally caught fish, from boat to table.

However, Blum said the majority of people likely don't know the origins of the fish they purchase and might not be willing to pay the higher price for a locally caught fish over a store-bought one.

Harter said he was interested in the steps the task force takes to combat unregulated fishing, but added that the fishing problems will worsen the longer it takes to correct them.

"The problem is that it takes 10 years to figure out we should've done something 10 years ago," he said.

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