California Seafood Company Faces Charges in Groundfish Overharvest

A California seafood company conspired to buy 45 tons of fish from trawlers who had exceeded catch limits on severely depleted groundfish stocks, a federal grand jury alleged Thursday.

Nov. 5— A California seafood company conspired to buy 45 tons of fish from trawlers who had exceeded catch limits on severely depleted groundfish stocks, a federal grand jury alleged Thursday.

The charges are the culmination of a three-year investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the FBI and the U.S attorney's office in San Francisco. Authorities said they were coming down hard on hide-the-fish schemes that threaten to further undermine the devastated West Coast groundfish industry, which federal authorities declared a disaster in 2000.

"Overfishing reduces and endangers populations, and the false documentation leads to inaccurate estimates for future quotas," said U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan in a written statement.

The indictment alleges that North Coast Fisheries Inc., based in Santa Rosa, Calif., falsified documents to hide illegal overfishing on at least 60 occasions between January 1999 and July 2001. The company's president, Michael Lucas, 40, of Santa Rosa and a former manager, Peter Pomilia, 54, of Blackhawk, Calif., were indicted on one count of conspiracy and nine counts of making false statements to the government.

A company official declined to comment Thursday and referred questions to Lucas, who did not return calls.

The indictment lists nine fishing vessels as participating in the alleged conspiracy, including one based in Oregon. None of the vessel owners or skippers have been charged with crimes and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to say whether investigators plan to bring charges.

According to the indictment, North Coast Fisheries carried out the illegal fish buying in San Francisco and other ports along the California coast. In some cases, the grand jury said, falsified landing records allowed the processor to buy more fish than a particular vessel was permitted to catch. In other cases, while the offloaded fish did not exceed vessel catch limits, the falsified records enabled North Coast to buy more fish from specific boats than a single processor is allowed by law.

Falsified records do more than give a processor an unfair advantage over others. They can lead regulators to underestimate the effects of fishing and set quotas that cut too deeply into surviving stocks — the very problem that the industry has been struggling to correct since 2000.

Changes by as little as a few tons in the catch of a severely depleted species, such as canary rockfish, can trigger drastic and costly measures to avoid overfishing, including the abrupt closure of fishing, said economist Hans Radtke, a former chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

For example, he said, regulators shut down fishing for whiting earlier this year because a single vessel unintentionally landed three tons of canary rockfish — a "bycatch" in the whiting harvest allowable at only very low quantities — in its trawl net.

"If it is something like a canary or bocaccio, every ton dictates whether we can continue a fishery that's worth millions of dollars," Radtke said.

Radtke said the allegations of a conspiracy to falsify catch records is one more reason the government needs to put observers aboard every boat in the groundfish fleet.

"There is a real concern about what are we going to do to make sure information about sensitive stocks is accurate," Radtke said.

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