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Media coverage of the Yates Supreme Court case isn’t treating illegal fishing seriously

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Yates vs. the United States. Commercial fishermen John Yates was caught with dozens of illegally caught grouper, he destroyed much of the evidence of this crime, and he was charged under a law designed to prosecute people for destruction of evidence. He is now suing the government for overreach.

The question of whether a law most commonly known for being used to deal with destruction of financial records can also be used to deal with destruction of evidence of illegal fishing is an interesting one. The Obama administration claims that the law was designed to be a generic Federal destruction of evidence ban, and it has also been used, according to a USA Today article, to “go after the destruction of cars, cash, cocaine, child pornography- even murder weapons and bodies.” It seems to me that it is an appropriate role of government to write regulations to ensure that our shared natural resources are sustainably exploited, it is an appropriate role of government to enforce violations of those laws, and it is an appropriate role of government to punish people for destroying evidence of those violations. A much bigger problem, however, is with much of the media coverage of this case.

Article about Yates vs. the United States are full of fish puns. US News and World Report called it a “fish tale,” and asked if the government “went overboard” in their prosecution. Months after publishing an opinion piece written by Yates that’s full of blatant lies about the case, Politico called it a “fish story.” TIME refers to the case as a “fine kettle of fish,” and a Fox News called it “fishy business.”  While I always appreciate a good fish pun, I can’t help but notice that none of these articles mention that illegal fishing is bad*, and many are actively claiming that it’s no big deal. “Does the nation’s highest court have bigger things to fret about than six dozen 19-inch fish? Certainly,” asked USA Today. The coverage in Forbes referred to the whole case as “absurd.” NPR’s story included a quote from Yates saying that his crime of illegally catching dozens of fish is essentially just “a speeding ticket.”

In reality, illegal fishing is a very serious problem. Over a billion people, most of whom are poor, depend on fish as a source of animal protein. The global fishing industry employs hundreds of millions of people around the world, and is worth tens of billions of dollars a year.  More than half of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, according to the United Nations food and agriculture organization, and many are overfished. Overfishing can result in the collapse of entire communities, as we saw with the Canadian cod collapseas well as ecological devastation.

To ensure that the fishing industry continues to provide jobs and food, we need strong science-based regulations, and fishermen need to play by the rules, including minimum size limits that aim to ensure that fish can reproduce before they are killed. The National Marine Fisheries Service notes that illegal fishing negatively affects “fisheries, marine ecosystems, food security and coastal communities around the world,” and “risks the sustainability of a multi-billion dollar U.S. industry.” Worldwide, WWF estimates that illegal fishing results in economic losses of over $23 billion a year. The Pew Environment Group’s illegal fishing project notes that stronger criminal penalties are needed to deter this practice.

If we need to have a national discussion over whether the government prosecuting someone for destroying evidence of a Federal crime under a law designed to prosecute people for destroying evidence of Federal crimes is “big government overreach,” fine. But illegal fishing is only a punchline if you don’t care about global food security, ecosystem health, or jobs for honest fishermen.


*The TIME article mentions that illegal fishing targeting endangered species, which is not what the Yates case is about, is bad.