A Seattle-based seafood company faces more than $2 million in fines after its employees on two Bering Sea catcher-processor vessels tampered with scales used to weigh fish hauls, according to federal fisheries managers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement division issued notices of violation to American Seafoods Co. on May 8. The notices accuse the company of manipulating flow scales measuring Bering Sea pollock catches in nearly 200 hauls of fish in 2011 and 2012, causing the scales to register lower weights. Operators of the Ocean Rover and the Northern Eagle then recorded loads of fish that were lighter than what they truly carried, the NOAA notices say.
"Adjusting the equipment to record a lower weight allowed the vessels to go over their quotas, essentially stealing fish from others permitted in the Alaska pollock fishery," NOAA said in a written statement.
Pollock is used to make frozen fish sticks and imitation crab, among other products. The mild-flavored whitefish represents a huge part of the fishing off Alaska's coasts and is one of the largest fisheries in the world.
For the alleged alterations to the scales and nearly 200 instances of hauling with inaccurate scales, NOAA assessed American Seafoods a penalty of $2,185,000.
Alan Kinsolving, NOAA's manager of at-sea measurement, would not say specifically how the crew of the Ocean Rover or Northern Eagle tampered with their flow scales, devices capable of quickly weighing fish passing over a conveyer belt.
"Just like anything else, if you're around a piece of equipment unsupervised you can always come up with a way of cheating it," Kinsolving said. "There's a number of ways they can goof with it."
And since each haul can be somewhere in the range of 80 to 100 metric tons of fish -- roughly 200,000 pounds -- a small error in the weighing is a large problem, Kinsolving said.
"Bottom line, it's a huge amount of fish," he said.
American Seafoods can ask for a hearing on the notices of violation, which would put the issue before an administrative law judge, NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said. The request must be made within 30 days of receiving the notice, she said.
"That judge would make a decision on the fines. Or they can potentially work out a settlement on the fines," Speegle said.
That's a decision American Seafoods has not made yet, the company said in a written statement. American's lawyers are looking into the basis of the allegations, the statement says.
"American Seafoods takes seriously its commitment to sustainable fishing practices and has cooperated fully with NOAA in investigating these matters," the statement says. "The company intends to respond to the allegations ... after it has completed its review."
According to NOAA, its law enforcement division continues to seek $543,000 in penalties from American Seafoods for similar alleged violations aboard another catcher-processor, the American Dynasty, in 2012.
Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@ adn.com or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE