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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Spanish businessman pleads guilty in illegal Chilean seabass case
Miami - A Spanish businessman pleaded guilty Monday to a federal obstruction of justice charge arising from an investigation into the illegal harvesting of protected Chilean seabass in the first case of its kind brought in the United States.
After entering his guilty plea, Antonio Vidal Pego was placed on four years' probation and fined $400,000, and he agreed to have no further involvement with the Chilean seabass business. An Uruguayan company associated with Vidal, Fadilur S.A., also agreed to plead guilty to an obstruction charge and will pay a $100,000 fine, its attorney said.
The case marked the first time U.S. prosecutors have brought criminal charges for the illegal importation and sale of Chilean seabass, a popular restaurant delicacy also known as the Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish.
The species, which grows extremely slowly, has been severely overfished worldwide and is the subject of international protection agreements. Environmental groups say commercial fishing "pirates" routinely violate those agreements because of the lure of immense profits.
It is not illegal to catch and sell the fish, which lives mainly off the coasts of Chile, South Africa, Argentina and Antarctica. But proper licenses and documents are required under the U.S. Lacey Act, which prohibits importation of wildlife taken in violation of conservation laws.
Vidal and Fadilur were indicted in September 2005 on charges of illegally importing and conspiring to sell some 26 tons of seabass brought to the Miami port in a shipping container from Singapore in 2004. That was part of a larger haul, with additional shipments going to New York, Boston and Los Angeles, said assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald.
Vidal and the Montevideo-based company pleaded guilty only to the obstruction count, which involved falsification of U.S. fisheries documents in an attempt to interfere with the federal investigation. Three other charges were dismissed.
Vidal, 33, of the seaport town of Ribeira, Spain, made no statement in court Monday other than to answer routine questions posed by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages about his plea. His attorney, Milton Hirsch, said Vidal had the financial means to delay the matter but chose to admit responsibility and move on.
"It could have been dragged out for years. He wanted to step forward and resolve it in a clear and above-board manner," Hirsch said.
Vidal could have been sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison, but Ungaro-Benages accepted a recommendation for probation and the $400,000 fine by both prosecutors and Vidal's lawyers. The lenient sentence also reflected Vidal's cooperation with U.S. authorities seeking to learn more about the global fishing business and those who violate agreements and laws.
"Mr. Vidal is probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about the international fishing business," Hirsch said.
Xavier Pastor, vice president for Europe for the Oceana environmental group, said it was important that prosecutors "have finally been able to prove, without any doubt, the involvement of Antonio Vidal and one of his companies, Fadilur, in illegal fishing business."
Pastor added in an e-mail from Madrid that international authorities must closely monitor Vidal's various fishing fleets and companies to ensure they comply with the requirement to keep out of the Chilean seabass business.
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Political processes/US Lacey Act