Domestic Policies

Change in decades-old law sought to keep fish farmers out of jail

FILE: May 8, 2010: Gulf Coast fishing boats docked in the harbor at Bayou LaBatre, Alabama.

FILE: May 8, 2010: Gulf Coast fishing boats docked in the harbor at Bayou LaBatre, Alabama.  (Reuters)

A federal wildlife protection law passed in 1900 has put modern-day fish farmers at risk of being fined or jailed if they accidentally ship an undocumented fish across state line. A congressman in Arkansas, third in the nation for aquaculture production, wants things to change.

Known as the Lacey Act, the law was intended to ban illegally killed game animals from being shipped across state lines. It was expanded in 1981 to include all "wild animals," including fish, which were "bred, hatched, or born in captivity." Violators face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Arkansas fish farmers produce more than $26 million worth of catfish, bait fish and ornamental fish annually. Some have complained that the law regulates the fruits of their labor as if the animals were caught in the wild.

The act was initially meant to put a stop to fur and feather trading, said Elizabeth Rumley, a staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

"Imagine that a single fish, or even fish egg, legal to possess in one state, is inadvertently loaded with a 2,000-pound truckload of other fish sold to a producer in another state where that accidental fish or egg is illegal," Rumley said in a news release Tuesday. "Once that shipment crosses the state line, both the buyer and seller can be prosecuted."

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., has filed a bill that would let fish farmers off the hook for making a simple mistake.

"My bill, the Aquaculture Risk Reduction Act, is a common-sense solution that proposes a technical fix to the Lacey Act for accidental infractions without changing the original intent of the underlying law," Crawford said in a news release.

Rumley said fish farmers are vulnerable because "there's no 'intent' requirement in the law, so even if the producer doesn't know (a contraband fish) was in there, he or she is still responsible."

For the past several years, Rumley has researched the Lacey Act and worked with congressional offices, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and agriculture officials.