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Monday, November 13, 2006
Updated: February 9, 11:12 PM ET
Holy seabass! Spanish merchant pleads guilty

By Curt Anderson
Associated Press — Nov. 13, 2006

MIAMI — A Spanish businessman pleaded guilty Monday to obstruction of justice arising from an investigation into the illegal harvesting of Chilean seabass, in the first case of its kind brought in the United States.

Under a plea agreement, Antonio Vidal Pego was placed on probation for four years probation and fined $400,000. He also agreed to have no further involvement in the Chilean seabass business.

A Uruguayan company associated with Vidal, Fadilur S.A., also pleaded guilty to obstruction and will pay a $100,000 fine, its attorney said.

The U.S. Attorney's office said the case was the first time federal prosecutors brought criminal charges for the illegal importation and sale of Chilean seabass, a popular restaurant item also known as the Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish.

The species has been severely overfished worldwide and is the subject of international protection agreements. Environmental groups say commercial fishing "pirates" routinely violate those agreements because of the lure of immense profits.

It is not illegal to catch and sell the fish, which lives mainly off the coasts of Chile, South Africa, Argentina and Antarctica. But proper licenses and documents are required under the U.S. Lacey Act, which prohibits importation of wildlife taken in violation of conservation laws.

Vidal and Fadilur were indicted in September 2005 on charges of illegally importing and conspiring to sell some 26 tons of seabass brought to the Miami port in 2004. The charge they pleaded guilty to involved falsification of U.S. fisheries documents. Three other charges were dismissed.

Vidal, 33, made no statement in court other than to answer questions posed by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages. His attorney, Milton Hirsch, said Vidal chose to admit responsibility and move on.

"He wanted to step forward and resolve it in a clear and aboveboard manner," Hirsch said.

Vidal could have been sentenced to 20 years in prison.