American Seafoods Contesting Fine Over Fish-Weighing Infractions

Measuring fish aboard a factory trawler isn’t a simple task.

“If you put a land scale out at sea, the motion of the vessel – or the motion in the ocean – would keep the scale from reading correctly, and you wouldn’t be able to settle on a weight,” says Jennifer Waston, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Watson specializes in catch accounting, and she says that keeping track of all the fish that’s caught and processed on the Bering Sea involves sensitive machinery that’s recalibrated constantly. The flow scales look like fancy conveyor belts, and are able to weigh thousands of pounds of fish every day.

But even though this gear is very sophisticated, it can still be manipulated. Just like any scale on land can be tipped to bring its owner a little extra profit.

“The perfect example would be the butcher weighing your meat and putting his thumb on the scale,” says Watson.

American Seafoods stands accused of committing the fisherman’s version of that offense. Instead of selling less for more, the company is charged with taking more fish than they were documenting.

NOAA filed a notice against the company in January, alleging that in 2007 and 2008, its vessel American Dynasty committed 39 violations of the Magnuson Stevens Act. The charges range from falsifying scale test reports to preventing an independent fisheries observer from doing her job. The agency proposes a penalty of $637,000 levied against American Seafoods, the American Dynasty, and its skipper Ole Knotten.

The investigation was first reported by Wesley Loy on his Deckboss blog. According to documents subsequently obtained by KUCB, NOAA alleges that the American Dynasty supplied inaccurate weight information for 65 of its 200 hauls during the 2007 pollock A season. The documents also detail numerous instances of the American Dynasty’s flow scale weighing anywhere from 7 to 70 percent light, which could allow the vessel to process more fish than federal regulation permits.

NOAA also accuses the crew of interfering with the work of its fisheries observer, whose job it is to make sure that all of the catch data is accurate. The document describes instances where an observer was told that fish processing would start at a scheduled time, only for her to find that it had begun more than an hour early.

While American Seafoods declined an interview for this story, attorney Matthew Latimer stated in an email that the company “disputes the allegations” and is “vigorously defending itself in this matter.”

NOAA’s Office of General Counsel also declined to comment on pending legal matters, but did confirm that a hearing before an administrative law judge is planned and that the case is currently in the discovery phase. The exact date of the hearing has not been announced.

American Seafoods was fined $700,000 earlier this summer for Clean Air Act violations, and agreed to spend up to $15 million retrofitting its vessels to meet greener standards. Knotten was cited by Alaska State Troopers in 2011 for employing an unlicensed crewmember aboard the American Dynasty and pled no contest.

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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