A Spanish ship-owner with a voluminous record of skirting international laws – and who swears he has never fished illegally – has been sentenced in Spain to one year and eight months in prison for trying to unload fish caught by one of his vessels.
An Australian patrol boat spotted the Hammer, owned by Manuel Antonio Vidal Pego, fishing without authorization in protected Antarctic waters in December 2005. In an attempt to mask the source of those fish, Vidal Pego twice renamed the vessel, finally settling on Chilbo San 33 and registering the ship in North Korea. The shipment of 240 tons of Chilean sea bass was confiscated by South Korean authorities after it was sold for more than $2.7 million to Uruguay-based Coast Line S.A., an affiliate of the Spanish seafood company Freiremar.
According to the sentencing documents, Vidal Pego masked from his trade partners that he had used a boat blacklisted for having previously circumvented international regulations. Once a boat lands in a black list it is banned from fishing in protected Antarctic waters.
Vidal Pego's lawyer said in court that the charge stems from an error on the company’s import declaration and has appealed the case. “We’re sure we will win, because we’re right,” said Foro Hernández, spokesperson for Vidal Pego, in an interview with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
In October ICIJ detailed how Vidal Pego, his companies and affiliates have been repeatedly pursued by government agencies and international regulators for their role in a decade-old network of vessels that entered remote and protected waters of the Antarctic and targeted toothfish – also known as Chilean sea bass – in violation of an international convention.
Since 1999, international fisheries regulators have linked vessels owned by Vidal Armadores – a company owned by Vidal Pego and his father – or its affiliates to more than 40 cases of alleged illegal fishing, ranging from using banned fishing gear to targeting protected kitefish shark.
Many officials claim that in this trade Vidal Pego has been one of its most infamous players.
Before this conviction, countries from Mozambique to the U.S. had fined the company or its affiliates five times for a total of more than $5 million. Vidal Armadores or its affiliates have landed in court seven times in criminal or administrative cases related to alleged illegal fishing. Vidal Pego pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a U.S. federal court in a 2006 case involving an illegal importation of toothfish by a Vidal Armadores affiliate.
But Vidal Pego still has never been found guilty in a criminal court of fishing illegally. That includes the current case.
Despite Vidal Armadores' record, Spain and the EU have granted at least €8.2 million ($12 million) in subsidies to the family’s companies since the mid-1990s, the ICIJ investigation showed.