The National Agricultural Law Center is helping change a 113-year-old law meant to protect wildlife, but today could subject fish farmers to prison or a $250,000 fine for accidentally shipping an errant fish.
The Lacey Act of 1900 was intended to prevent the interstate shipment of game killed illegally. The law was broadened 81 years later to include all “wild animals,” including fish and amphibians, “bred, hatched, or born in captivity.” In 2008, the law was further expanded to include plants.
“The Lacey Act is a federal law that was originally meant to stop the fur/feather trade,” said Elizabeth Rumley, a staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The law bars “the movement of prohibited species across state borders, and punishes offenders with severe penalties.”
The expanded law can be triggered in a number of ways, including if another federal law or state law is violated by a product that’s part of interstate commerce. That’s where the danger lies for Arkansas’ catfish, bait and ornamental fish industry. Arkansas ranked third nationally in catfish, an industry whose production was valued at $26.78 million in 2011.
“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,” she said. “Once that shipment crosses the state line, both the buyer and seller can be prosecuted.”
Had the shipper or buyer known the illegal nature of the errant fish or the value of the wildlife was more than $350, then they could be prosecuted under the law’s felony provisions -- meaning up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
The producer had no intention of breaking the law, but because “there’s no ‘intent’ requirement in the law, so even if the producer doesn’t know it was in there, he or she is still responsible,” Rumley said.
Rumley has conducted considerable research and outreach on the Lacey Act in the last few years. She has worked with Congressional offices, U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel, Extension faculty and staff, and producers in explaining the Lacey Act provisions and its legal meaning for aquaculture producers in Arkansas and elsewhere.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford introduced HR3105, the Aquaculture Risk Reduction Act. HR3105 is meant to provide a “common-sense exemption for producers in cases of accidental inclusion” of the wrong kind of fish in shipments across state lines.
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"The Lacey Act is a well-intentioned law, passed in the year 1900, but is in great need of modernizing to accommodate 21st century agriculture,” Crawford said in a release last Wednesday. The bill “proposes a technical fix to the Lacey Act for accidental infractions without changing the original intent of the underlying law.”