MADRID (AP) — Authorities in Spain have accused a company there of running a lucrative international operation that illegally captured vast amounts of an Antarctic fish prized in top restaurants.
The Spanish government proposes fining the company as much as 11.4 million euros ($12.9 million) for alleged poaching of the Antarctic toothfish, a delicacy marketed in North America as Chilean sea bass.
A government statement said the operation was concealed behind a labyrinthine system of foreign front companies, with fishing boats flying the flags of African and Asian countries to mask ownership.
Spain did not name the companies, but New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully told The Associated Press in an interview they were all linked to Vidal Armadores SA, which was fined 150,000 euros in 2010 for illegal fishing near Antarctica.
The Spanish government declined comment when asked why it did not name Vidal or the front companies it allegedly used.
Efforts to reach Vidal for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful. The company has no listed telephone numbers, and a former spokesman said owners have changed their numbers and he could not get new contact information. The company's longtime lawyer, Carlos Perez Bouzadas, declined to comment.
In 2010, Vidal's legal team argued that boats flying flags of countries that have not signed accords limiting Antarctic fishing in international waters are not doing anything illegal while fishing in those areas.
McCully, the New Zealand minister, said his country provided Spain with some of the evidence it needed to take action against Vidal and described the proposed fines as "a giant step forward" in the fight against Antarctic poaching.
Vidal, a family-run business operating out of Ribeira, a town of fewer than 28,000 people on Spain's northwestern Galicia coast, does not face criminal charges. The Vidal-linked companies accused by Spain can either pay the fines or challenge them in court.
Fifty Spanish sailors accused by Spain of having worked on the fishing boats and participated in illegal fishing could be disqualified from fishing activities, Spain said in the statement about the proposed fines.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body that oversees Antarctic fishing, each year allows companies from around the globe to legally catch only 26,000 metric tons of toothfish, more than half of which is sent to the United States. Industry experts estimate that some 1,000 metric tons of Antarctic toothfish worth about $20 million are caught illegally each year.
"We're anxious to remove all illegal, unreported and unregulated vessels," said Andrew Wright, the commission's executive secretary. "They completely undermine our efforts to make fishing there sustainable."
The Spanish ministry said in its statement it believes the targeted companies contravened international fishing agreements.
The boats engaged in illegal Antarctic fishing did not fly the Spanish flag but used those of countries that have not signed international fishing conservation or high sea resource management agreements, such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Indonesia, authorities said.
Environmental activist group Sea Shepherd says it confronted some of the Vidal-linked toothfish boats in the waters near Antarctica over the Southern Hemisphere summer fishing season that lasts from December through March.
Sid Chakravarty, captain of the Sea Shepherd boat the Sam Simon, said he tracked down two Vidal-related boats in early February, after the New Zealand navy had spotted them earlier.
He said when he approached the vessels he noticed the numbers and names on them had been freshly painted over and that one had used a piece of cardboard to fashion the flag of Equatorial Guinea.
"They didn't even have an actual flag," he said.
Chakravarty said both vessels had fishing gear on the decks ready to be deployed. He said he got no response when he hailed them, with the vessels splitting up and speeding away. He said he decided to follow one, a chase that lasted for about eight days through heavy sea ice.
Environmental campaigners cheered the Spanish government's announcement. Maria Jose Cornax, Fisheries Campaign Manager at Oceana, a U.S.-based sea protection group, said the sanction against Vidal was the first of its kind in the European Union.
Environmental and industry groups say they hope the proposed Spanish sanctions, along with the recent impounding of boats suspected of illegal toothfishing by authorities in Africa and Asia, will mark an end to the illegal industry around Antarctica. But McCully said that though the developments were welcome, it was "premature to declare a total victory."
Spanish authorities broadened investigations into companies suspected of illegal fishing after a new law in January gave them the power to prosecute Spanish citizens or Spanish companies found to be catching fish illegally, no matter where in the world they were doing it or under what flag.
Authorities are still investigating how the fish got into the legal commercial circuit and ultimately into restaurants. Spanish officials said the vessels were run by several front companies based in Panama, Uruguay, Belize and Switzerland.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.