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Montevideo, December 12th 2018 - 02:53 UTC

Spanish magnate faces US trial for illegal toothfish trade

Friday, June 30th 2006 - 21:00 UTC
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Spanish fishing magnate Antonio Vidal and the Uruguayan company Fidelur have been allegedly caught red handed illegally trading with toothfish in United States and now face serious charges in a Miami federal court.

Actually in the US, Patagonian toothfish is identified as "Chilean sea bass" although it doesn't necessarily come from Chile and is not even sea bass. "The name was coined after a clever marketer decided the real name -- Patagonian toothfish -- was an unappetizing mouthful".

According to a report from Jane Bussey published this week in The Miami Herald "when the container ship Kitano arrived in Miami on May 25, 2004, federal agents seized a valuable catch: a 26-ton container of Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish) they believe was poached. But the bigger fish may have been the owner of the pricey cargo, Spanish fishing magnate Antonio Vidal.

Vidal's name is already well-known in environmental protection circles. The dramatic sea chase of one of his ships (the Uruguayan flagged Viarsa I) halfway across Antarctic ice floes on suspicions of poaching sea bass is the subject of the new book Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish. Now the criminal charges against Vidal, played out in Miami federal court, are quickly becoming a test case in government efforts to stop illegal fishing threatening the sea bass population.

"I seldom represent people this innocent"

Vidal pleaded innocent in April to charges he conspired to import and sell illegally caught Chilean sea bass. His lawyer, Milton Hirsch, says his client has nothing to do with the alleged illegality of the fish catch and received news of the problem sitting in Spain. 'I so seldom get to represent people this innocent,' Hirsch said. 'No one has yet to tell me what crime my client committed.'

The criminal indictment of Vidal marks the first time a large-scale fishing fleet owner has been charged in the United States solely for illegal trade of toothfish/sea bass and for obstruction. (A South African fishing owner was charged with smuggling sea bass in 2003, but reached a plea deal on lobster smuggling.)

Vidal turned himself in to authorities at Miami International Airport in April, after a warrant for his arrest circulated on Interpol. He could face 58 to 63 months in prison if convicted. He also faces forfeiture of the 314,397 US dollars value of the Miami share of the imports and fines of up to one million US dollars for himself and two million US dollars for his Uruguayan company, Fadilur.

A trial is set for Oct. 30. Hirsch has asked to withdraw as attorney for Fadilur because of a conflict in representing both Vidal and the company where he has an ownership stake.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas A. Watts-FitzGerald, a member of the environmental crimes division who once served with the Coast Guard, had no comment on the matter.

The case centers on charges that Vidal and Fadilur doctored the licenses and other documents filed with the U.S. government to establish the toothfish/Chilean sea bass was caught legally.

According to the court documents:

After arriving in Singapore, the sea bass was loaded into 11 containers. One container was sent to Miami; the others to Los Angeles, Boston and New York.

Agents from the National Marine Fisheries Service -- part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- seized the container of sea bass when it arrived in Miami.

The shipment was to be cleared from customs with documents showing its license number, descriptions and the consignment to a Miami customs broker to be sold.

However, NOAA agents found numerous problems with the documents: The licenses, known as the fish catch documents, were invalid, since the license number had been used previously.

Another official document describing the load of fish, including where it was caught and its weight, appeared to be altered. That alteration is the basis for the government's obstruction charge against Vidal and Fadilur.

Finally, the customs broker listed had no record of the shipment and no license to import Chilean sea bass.

A bit of history

The Miami Herald points out that the Chilean sea bass/toothfish has become a delectable and pricey special in trendy restaurants.

"Success, however, comes at a price. In the three decades since a Los Angeles fish merchant came upon the fish on the docks in southern Chile, fishing fleets have literally 'strip mined' the fish from the seas around Chile, Argentina and South Africa.

In 2002, the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based group, enlisted hundreds of chefs from Miami to Seattle to voluntarily remove sea bass from their menus. The campaign, Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass, remains in effect.

It is not illegal to catch and consume sea bass, but global laws require fleets to obtain proper licenses.

Also, the primary international rules, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, require documentation confirming each catch was legally harvested. The U.S. Lacey Act bans imports of wildlife caught in violation of conservation laws".

Wholesale: 25 US dollars a pound

Environmental groups are keenly focused on the criminal charges against Vidal. Experts estimate the populations of all commercial fish today are 10% what they were 50 years ago. Certain fish have already gone commercially extinct.

'If we are going to save the oceans -- and scientists say we have 20 years -- one of the things we are to have to do is enforce the laws,' said Andrew Sharpless, chief executive of Oceana, a Washington environmental group lobbying against, among other things, government subsidies for fishing fleets offered in countries such as Spain.

Legal toothfish can still be found in fish markets and restaurants across the US. Firms like Triar Seafood Warehouse in Hollywood still import fish from South America. Owner Peter Jarvis, a self-proclaimed former hippie, said he's sympathetic to environmentalists' concerns.

"Ours are coming in from areas that are not fished out", Jarvis said.

He noted the toothfish/sea bass is very popular despite its wholesale price of 24.99 US dollars a pound.

Categories: Mercosur.

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