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Los Angeles' United States Attorney Andre Birotte, speaking at the Orange County District Attorney's Office during National Crime Victims' Rights Week in April of 2011.

Central District of California Department of Justice photo

Los Angeles' United States Attorney Andre Birotte, speaking at the Orange County District Attorney's Office during National Crime Victims' Rights Week in April of 2011.


Unsung Heroes of the Ocean

Crime and Punishment on the Seven Seas


Saturday, June 25, 2011

The recent news of the gruesome discovery of six adult gray seals on Cape Cod—each killed by gun shots to the head—has horrified the public and alarmed law enforcement officials and wildlife advocates. For years, as the gray seals have recovered from almost a 100 years of hunting, these marine mammals have fascinated the public as well as wildlife biologists. Special Agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now lead the investigation to try and determine who is responsible for the deaths of these creatures.

NOAA agents are also active on the West Coast.

After a multi-year investigation, NOAA agents and California criminal investigators determined that much of the white fish sold and consumed in the United States between 2003 and 2007 had been mislabeled. Twenty-five corporations and individuals were indicted for illegal smuggling and falsely labeling Vietnamese catfish as grouper and flounder to avoid paying $65 million in customs duties. A federal trial in 2008 led to the conviction of all the defendants who appeared in court; the remaining defendants either fled to Vietnam or failed to appear. The investigation resulted in prison terms of up to 63 months and forfeitures in excess of $12.5 million.

Also in 2008, a large fish packing house began defrauding fishermen by falsifying documents to under-report the volume of sardines they landed. For two years, the fishermen were cheated of their earnings and the State of California was cheated of taxes. The fishery’s sustainability was also put at risk. Criminal investigators from NOAA and the California Department of Fish and Game learned of the fraud and took action: Last year, the packing house pleaded guilty to two federal criminal counts and was sentenced to pay restitution to the local fishermen, a fine of $110,000, and $4,000 in previously avoided taxes.

Despite heavy case loads and limited resources, NOAA agents have had a long list of success stories, including convictions for coral and lobster smuggling. Their successes are critical to sustainable fisheries, consumer protection, and a vibrant domestic seafood industry.

These are just some examples of how NOAA investigates wildlife crimes that would otherwise go unchecked—crimes that damage our ecosystems, penalize fishermen who play by the rules, and rob states of tax revenue. Some critics have portrayed NOAA as overly zealous in its enforcement of federal laws. On the contrary, NOAA special agents have been the unsung heroes of efforts to preserve our ocean resources and protect our seafood industry.

For years, with only 150 NOAA special agents nationwide (compared to approximately 1000 federal agents in the Los Angeles area alone), NOAA has been tasked with handling both criminal and civil violations affecting our commercial, recreational, and farmed fisheries; international fisheries; domestic seafood markets; and marine sanctuaries from Maine to Guam. Many of the criminal cases involve conduct, profits, and sentences that are no different than in any other type of sophisticated transnational organized crime. There have been sentences of up to 97 months in prison, and restitution for damaged resources or lost taxes of up to $65 million.

The work of NOAA agents helps ensure that our children can enjoy the abundant but finite natural resources and fisheries with which we are blessed, law-abiding fishermen can compete on a level playing field, and consumers can confidently purchase seafood products. As the nation’s prosecutors, we can endorse the dedication and skill of NOAA investigators. We applaud and support their efforts, which are crucial to our economy, our food supply, and our treasured natural resources.

~Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General, U. S. Department of Justice, Environmental and Natural Resources Division
~Michael W. Cotter, United States Attorney, District of Montana, Chair AGAC Environmental Issues Working Group
~Carmen Milagros Ortiz, United States Attorney, District of Massachusetts
~Dwight Holton, United States Attorney, District of Oregon
~Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney, Southern District of Florida
~Karen L. Loeffler, United States Attorney, District of Alaska
~Jim Letten, United States Attorney, Eastern District of Louisiana
~Jenny A. Durkan, United States Attorney, Western District of Washington
~Andre Birotte, Jr. United States Attorney, Central District of California

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