Federal Regulators Crack Down on Fish Fraud

In the wake of several high-profile cases of alleged scale-tamperingby Bering Sea groundfish vessels, the National Marine Fisheries Service is revising its regulations for weighing fish at-sea. The new measures are aimed at making it more difficult for vessels to under-report their catch.

The Bering Sea’s large catcher-processors weigh their harvest as it heads to the processing line on what’s known as a flow-scale – a section of conveyor belt that takes dozens of measurements per second. When properly calibrated, flow-scales give fisheries managers a very accurate estimate of the amount of fish being harvested. But like all scales, they can be manipulated.

“I’m hesitant to lay out exactly how one could tamper with a scale.”

That’s Alan Kinsolving. He’s in charge of at-sea measurement for the National Marine Fisheries Service, and helped draft the new regulations. As he explained to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its meeting this month, there are lots of ways that his office works to keep boats honest – they only approve a limited number of scale models, do thorough inspections of the scales annually, and make sure they’re calibrated daily against a known weight.

“Unfortunately, none of this inherently prevents vessel owners or vessel crew from fraudulently misusing scale equipment on the boat,” Kinsolving says.

He told the Council that one of the biggest loopholes in the current regulations is a provision that allows scales to be off by as much as three percent without penalty.

“I take a look at those results on the boats each year when I’m out on them, and in most cases, for most boats, the majority really do try to keep those numbers as close to zero as possible,” Kinsolving says. “However, the truth is that you do have some that seem to believe that three percent is a goal, rather than a max.”

With the vessels processing hundreds of tons of fish a day, Kinsolving says three percent underreporting can add up to a lot of fish that isn’t being accounted for. He says if boats were required to report the results of their calibrations daily, it would be easier to spot vessels trying to game the system.

“And if we do have a boat that is indeed pushing those limits, to try to kind of rein them in before the full year is up.”

Kinsolving also wants to expand video monitoring of the fish-weighing area, to make it more difficult for anyone to tamper with the scale, undetected.

“We have video on the majority of the boats that weigh catch at sea, and extending that system so that we can keep a close eye on that critical point in our catch accounting system where all that catch is weighed, it would not be technologically difficult, and I believe that it would significantly reduce the potential for fraud.”

In testimony to the Council, industry representatives mostly supported the proposed changes. Chad See, the Executive Director of the Freezer Longline Coalition, asked Kinsolving to tweak a proposal that would shift how vessels schedule their annual exams, but said that in general, he thought the updated regulations would be positive.

“Many of those proposals are probably well within the… are needed, and within the realm of what the agency needs to do – and can do – to improve technology and recognize new technologies.”

The changes could start being implemented as soon as January 2015.

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