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Florida’s Hot Lobsters

Floridan lobsters
Spiny lobsters. Photo by Carli Segelson, courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Lobster season has arrived in Florida. So have the lobster rustlers.

Florida’s lobsters are not the shellfish usually featured in tanks at seafood restaurants. Spiny lobsters, also sometimes called rock lobsters, boast long, thick antennae and lack the prominent front claws of their distant cousins. They’re plentiful in South Africa, the Mediterranean – and in South Florida, where lobster season runs from August through March.

According to local news reports, lobster fishermen have reported an “organized and orchestrated effort” to steal lobsters from traps, to the tune of an estimated $4 million in losses. Some of the lobsters taken reportedly don’t meet legal size requirements, which suggests an ecological impact as well as an economic one.

While Florida Fish and Wildlife has said it is working to stop the thefts, harvesters counter that the problem is simply too widespread for the agency’s manpower to handle. They are taking matters into their own hands, taking photos of boats they believe are launching divers.

Illegal fishing is serious business. Earlier this summer, Florida Fish and Wildlife officers pulled over seven men and discovered their boat carried 137 lobster tails – 117 of which were undersized, and all of which were out of season. The men also had stone crab claws and a variety of fish; it was reportedly not clear whether they were taking the seafood for commercial purposes or for a private party.

But their illegal haul was tiny compared to a recent vessel caught in Galapagos National Park. The ship’s log said it carried about 300 tons of fish, including many sharks, some of which were endangered species. The park is a marine sanctuary, meaning no fishing is allowed, and the crew was arrested. Yet, as marine ecologist Pelayo Salinas told National Geographic, it was pure chance than park rangers caught the vessel. “Sadly, this is day-to-day business on the ocean,” Salinas said.

As the Galapagos incident demonstrates, Florida’s purloined lobsters are just one aspect of a serious worldwide problem. It ranges in scale from desperate individuals poaching clams in Portugal to China’s systematic aggression, especially in the South China Sea. Illegal fishing is so common that some estimates suggest as much as a third of fish sold in the United States is acquired illegally. Illegal fishing is contributing to food insecurity in many West African countries and rapid depletion of fish stocks worldwide; in some cases, it also poses national security concerns for the United States.

Prosecuting the thieves only gets you so far. Just as with drugs, as long as there is demand, there will always be someone willing to provide a supply.

Should we expect commercial seafood buyers to know where their fish came from? If someone shows up at your restaurant’s door with a box of frozen shrimp, you should probably ask a few questions. In April, a prominent Houston chef was charged with funneling 14 tons of illegal seafood through his restaurant, as part of a larger investigation into a network of unlicensed seafood providers. (According to the chef’s attorney, he plans to challenge the allegations in court.)

Part of the problem, however, is that “transshipments” – incidents when two ships meet at sea to exchange cargo – often allow illegally caught fish to make their way into the legal supply chain. Because such exchanges happen in the vastness of the ocean, they have been hard to track. A new satellite-based surveillance system, Global Fishing Watch, may help. The system, powered by Google, is a free platform available to governments, journalists and laypeople interested in monitoring fishing vessels in real time. While this technology represents a helpful step, the technology is based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which lawbreaking vessels can and do shut off. Still, the system has already registered some small success; the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati used it to prove the illegal behavior of a tuna-fishing vessel, resulting in a $1 million fine.

Cooperation between governments may also help curtail illegal fishing activities. Thirty governments, including those of the United States and the European Union, have signed on to the the Port State Measures Agreement, designed to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The agreement mandates that captains provide advance notice of arrivals and empowers port officials to turn away suspect catch, theoretically helping to keep illegal fish from entering the supply chain and taking profit out of such activity. The agreement also allows port officials to deny services to vessels believed to have engaged in IUU fishing.

The opacity of the seafood supply chain has long allowed for shady practices, from illegal fishing to labeling escolar as tuna. Shining a brighter light on all parts of the process can only benefit consumers, not to mention the honest participants in the seafood industry who are trying to make a living while abiding by the rules.

As for me, I like my lobsters cold, on a New England roll. I like them hot, too – but only on my plate.

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