Hiding Bycatch Nets a Big Fine
Jan. 21A Seattle-based commercial fishing company has pleaded guilty and been ordered to pay $500,000 in penalties for illegally disposing of halibut while catching other types of fish off Alaska.
The action in U.S. District Court in Anchorage follows up jail terms meted out in November to Paul Ison and Daniel Skauge, the captain and first mate of the fishing vessel Unimak.
The operator of the boat, Unimak Fisheries, entered a guilty plea last Friday, with managing partner Michael Zubko representing the company in the courtroom, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office in Anchorage.
Magistrate Judge Harry Branson, according to terms of a plea agreement, fined the company $300,000 and also ordered it to pay $200,000 as restitution to the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a Seattle-based body that helps research and manage halibut fisheries along the U.S. and Canadian coasts.
Branson also banned the Unimak from fishing for 14 days this year and put the company on probation for 18 months. He also required the company to hire an expert to "examine and correct policies which may have led to the criminal conduct," the U.S. attorney's office said.
Prosecutors said the crew of the 185-foot Unimak, while netting sole and other types of fish during 2000 in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, tried to hide accidental catches of halibut from a federal fisheries observer aboard the boat to log the catch.
Such unintended catches are known as bycatch, and when the fishing fleet reaches the seasonal limit on halibut bycatch, regulators immediately close the fishery.
Hiding halibut constitutes illegal under-reporting of bycatch and could extend the fishing season to the detriment of the health of fish stocks, fishery regulators said.
In November, a judge ordered the Unimak's captain and first mate each to spend four months in prison, to pay fines and restitution of $50,000 and to not work in the fishing industry for a year.
Zubko, of Seattle, could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Doug Fryer, an attorney for Unimak Fisheries, conceded that halibut bycatch infractions did occur on the boat, and that's why the company struck a plea agreement with prosecutors. However, he said company management including Zubko didn't direct the unlawful activity and "had no advanced knowledge at all" that it was happening at sea.
In July, another fishing company prosecutors say Zubko operated was ordered to pay a $240,000 fine for under-reporting halibut bycatch aboard the trawler Rebecca Irene.
The Unimak and the Rebecca Irene are part of a fleet of about 25 factory trawlers that catch, head, gut and freeze bottom fish.
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© 2005, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.