The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Operation Muddy Waters was a successful investigation which led to the conviction of two individuals who were found guilty of poaching and trafficking paddlefish and sturgeon from the Ohio River. The culprits were after the fishes’ roe which was destined for international markets.
In August 2022, FWS awarded two whistleblowers $2,000 each for the critical role they played in the development and eventual success of Operation Muddy Waters. The existence of these whistleblower awards was not previously made public and details about them were made available to Whistleblower Network News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The two whistleblowers voluntarily contacted FWS through the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources regarding two Illinois commercial roe harvesters who were harvesting significant amounts of paddlefish and sturgeon from the Ohio River.
According to FWS, the culprits’ “illegal fishing operations caused significant damage to both sturgeon and paddlefish populations in the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. A noticeable decline in shovelnose sturgeon populations was observed by other commercial roe harvesters attempting to legally harvest sturgeon roe during the time.”
FWS further notes that “the area this illegal activity was occurring was remote and difficult to conduct surveillance.” The two whistleblowers, who “provided local knowledge and information only a resident of the community could provide,” were thus critical to the success of the operation.
In its award request, FWS outlines the multitude of ways that the whistleblowers contributed to the success of Operation Muddy Waters, noting that “given the [whistleblowers’] position[s], connections and expertise, this investigation would not have been successfully developed and prosecuted without [their] assistance.”
For example, according to FWS, one whistleblower provided “the dates and times [the culprits] were fishing and if they were both together and fishing separately,” “provided descriptions of vehicles and commercial fishing vessels along with locations of nets set in the Ohio River,” and “provided information along with photographs of [the culprits’] illegal roe harvests.”
The whistleblowers also “would contact [the FWS Special Agent] at odd hours of the night. and sometimes multiple times throughout the day and night to provide active intelligence of illegal commercial fishing operations of [the culprits] along with other commercial roe harvesters.”
Operation Muddy Waters resulted in the successful conviction of the two culprits for violations of the Lacey Act, America’s premier anti-wildlife trafficking law. Under little-known and rarely used amendments to the Lacey Act, FWS has the authority to award whistleblowers who aid in the success of investigations.
According to WNN’s exclusive reporting, from November 2019 through August 2022, FWS only paid out twenty-one whistleblower awards in total. According to whistleblower advocates, this number shows that the agency continues to fail to prioritize whistleblower awards as a powerful enforcement tool despite their proven efficacy in cases such as this one.
“Fish and Wildlife continues to radically underutilize whistleblower awards,” says whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn, a leading expert on whistleblower law. “The program has tremendous potential and could revolutionize the enforcement of wildlife crime. Fish and Wildlife needs to follow the lead of the SEC and other agencies and implement a robust whistleblower award program.”
According to Kohn, part of implementing a robust whistleblower award program is to publicize award payments. For example, while still protecting a whistleblower’s identity by redacting any identifying information, the SEC widely promotes whistleblower awards it issues through its highly successful whistleblower award program. These public announcements help incentivize other whistleblowers to come forward and help deter criminals who worry about having the whistle blown on them.
FWS by contrast has never publicly acknowledged the whistleblower award payment made to the whistleblower who exposed the illegal possession of the bird parts in Hawaii.
“It is a missed opportunity to not publicize successful whistleblower awards,” says Kohn. “Highlighting award payments is a crucial way to inform the public about the opportunity to receive an award in exchange for voluntarily providing key information about wildlife crimes.”