Investigators were on the case of a million pounds of frozen Asian catfish being sold as grouper and bass.
The agents knew it would be difficult to prove in court. It would require cutting-edge science, a CSI-style investigation including DNA sequencing and biochemical analysis.
That crucial work was done here, in a small, low-profile lab on James Island.
But now the Marine Forensics lab at Fort Johnson is itself under the knife, threatened by National Ocean Service budget cuts. That alarms wildlife officers and groups trying to protect species such as loggerhead turtles. The program, the only crime scene investigation lab for sea critters, is vital, they say.
"If you've just got a Ziploc bag with meat in it, there's no way to know if that's an endangered sea turtle or a flounder fillet," said Karen Eckert, Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network executive director. "It doesn't make any sense to have federal endangered species laws on the books and no way to prosecute offenders. It's just stupid. This lab is it. It's not like we have 12 of them and it's not going to matter if one shuts down."
"When we use it, we need it," said Lt. Chisolm Frampton of the South Carolina Natural Resources Department.
National Marine Fisheries Service investigators use the lab regularly, said Mark Oswell, public information officer.
When wildlife officers had to prove that an imported turtle cream was made with sea turtle oil, the lab at Fort Johnson did the work, said Edgard Espinoza, deputy director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., the only other federal environmental forensics lab in the country, which specializes in other species and tests.
"They're the ones who developed the technique," Espinoza said. "Their role has been essential to the prosecution of law enforcement cases. Their absence would create a hole where suspects would be exonerated. There would be no chain of custody of evidence, no expert testimony to prove what the suspects were doing was illegal."
So why close such an important, $5 million operation to pare down a $400 million
National Ocean Service budget? The service, like every other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office, has been operating on a trimmed budget for some time, said David Blockstein, senior scientist for the National Council for Science and the Environment.
"It has nothing to do with the merit. It's beyond cutting fat. They're cutting into the bone," he said. "They're just trying to find something that won't squeal as much when they cut it."
The Fort Johnson lab's eight researchers have been told not to talk to the media. Questions were referred to the national NOAA office.
"At this point no decision concerning the closing of the NOAA Marine Forensics Laboratory has been made," Ben Sherman, NOAA's communications director, wrote in an e-mail. "Any potential budget savings and employee staffing levels at this point remain part of an internal deliberative process."
"One of the ironic things is, and maybe because of the CSI television shows, environmental forensics is a field that's very much alive and growing," Blockstein said. "It's essential to have highly credible scientific information."