A Kodiak fish-processing company pleaded guilty Friday to a federal felony charge of illegally underreporting the amount of pollock purchased from a fishing boat.
International Seafoods of Alaska Inc., whose plant is one of the biggest in the commercial fishing hub of Kodiak, was fined $150,000 and put on probation for five years under a plea agreement with prosecutors.
The company also must pay another $46,000, the estimated market value of pollock illegally received at the plant in the first three months of 1999. And it must run ads in the Maine-based trade journal National Fisherman acknowledging its guilt and the importance of the fishing industry making accurate catch and production reports to government fishery managers looking after the health of ocean fish stocks.
U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton accepted the plea in an Anchorage courtroom Friday morning.
The case, the subject of much dock talk in Kodiak, is the culmination of months of negotiations between attorneys for International and federal investigators and prosecutors. By law, International could have been fined up to $500,000.
A felony case is pending against a former International manager, and authorities are weighing action against the owners of trawlers that made excess deliveries to the plant, said assistant U.S. attorney Joe Bottini.
A key figure in the case was a woman hired by trawler captains to keep track of the weight of fish being unloaded from their boats at the plant, Bottini said. She reported discrepancies to officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates commercial fishing in federal waters off Alaska.
The case goes back to early 1999 and involves boats delivering fish in excess of a 300,000-pound pollock "trip limit." The limit, used as a tool to prevent overfishing, meant that boats were not supposed to deliver loads greater than that weight to the processing plants.
The plea agreement focuses on the case of the trawler Amber Dawn, which on Jan. 22, 1999, delivered 312,464 pounds of fish to International. The agreement says International employees knew the load was over the limit but agreed to purchase all the fish and prepared a "fish ticket" that falsely reported the load at only 296,115 pounds. A subsequent weekly production report submitted to NMFS underreported the delivery by 16,349 pounds.
The 110-foot Amber Dawn sank in March in the Bering Sea, killing two crewmen.
The owner, Burt Parker, could not be reached for comment Friday. Investigators have identified nine instances during early 1999 where boats made deliveries over the limit, Bottini said. Instead of immediately paying fishermen for excess fish, he said, the company might have banked overages for boats to apply to future deliveries of less than 300,000 pounds.
Regardless, false reports of actual deliveries were reported to the government, he said.
The woman checking weights in the plant "basically went along with this but then she had enough" and contacted NMFS officials, Bottini said. The International plant is part of the global business holdings of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Joachim Becker, corporate secretary with the International's Kodiak plant, was in the courtroom Friday and entered the plea on behalf of the company's board of directors.
Michael Spaan, an Anchorage attorney for International, called the case "record-keeping errors" that International employees made possibly to accommodate fishermen.
"There was no profit to the company," he said.
Gerald Bruce Ensley, 55, a former assistant plant manager, has been charged with aiding and abetting the purchase of unlawfully taken fish and is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on July 11, according to court papers. He faces up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
Gary Gailbreath, a NMFS enforcement agent in Anchorage, disputed the notion that International didn't stand to gain. Fish plants depend on deliveries from fishermen, and a boat captain who knows his catch is overweight might be inclined to take his fish to a plant that will fudge the numbers, he said. "It really was giving them a competitive advantage," Gailbreath said of International.
He said fisheries officials often take civil action against fishermen and processing plants for violations, but criminal charges are rare. He said authorities wanted to make a point of the importance of industry records in helping managers regulate fisheries and preserve fish stocks.
Al Burch, a longtime Kodiak fishermen and head of a trade association of trawlers, said many people in Kodiak will applaud the criminal case.
"The honest boats are going to really welcome it," he said. "And the plants, too."