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Spain Doles Out Millions In Aid Despite Fishing Company's Record, Report Finds (PHOTOS)

First Posted: 10/ 2/2011 2:15 pm Updated: 12/ 1/2011 5:12 am

By Kate Willson and Mar Cabra Of The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

One of the world’s most controversial fishing operations — a family-controlled company in northwestern Spain linked to more than 40 cases of alleged illegal fishing — is changing tack. Antonio Vidal Pego, co-owner of Vidal Armadores, says the company is folding, and he’s devoting himself to renewable energy and fish oil. But fisheries officials in Brussels are not convinced.

Trafficking in fish is a thriving global black market. It fuels organized crime and the rapid disappearance of the oceans’ most valuable species, including top predators that scientists say are vital to the balance of the marine ecosystem. Nine out of 10 large fish are already gone, marine biologists say.

Many claim Vidal Pego has been one of the most infamous players in this trade – a so-called “pirate” fisherman.

“You can see I don’t have a hook, a parrot on my shoulder or a wooden leg,” the 38-year-old says as he sits down to lunch in a private room at Restaurante Berenguela in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Galician region. He says it is his company’s first on-the-record interview.

“We want to erase a story that has never been erased because there’s always someone trying to revive it,” he says. “So much damage has been done by the bad press, we’ve gone from a dynamic company to nothing.”

Vidal Pego — known as “Toño” — says his family business Vidal Armadores, “ship-owners” in Spanish, has been forced to halt operations. He insists that the company has opened a new chapter and moved beyond its controversial past.

When a reporter brings up allegations of his past involvement in the lucrative illegal trade in Patagonian Toothfish — sold in the U.S. under the more appetizing name Chilean sea bass — he says he and his father have only fished legally.

Yet his response leaves room for debate.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has reviewed hundreds of records — including court records, government investigative files and official correspondence — from a half dozen countries. They offer quite another picture – one in which the company has systematically employed legal maneuvers to circumvent international laws.

The ICIJ investigation found that Vidal Armadores or its affiliates have been repeatedly pursued by government agencies and international regulators for its role in a decade-old network of vessels that entered the remote and protected waters of the Antarctic and targeted toothfish in violation of an international convention.

Since 1999, international fisheries regulators have linked vessels owned by Vidal Armadores or its affiliates to more than 40 instances of alleged illegal fishing — more formally referred to by international regulators as Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing — ranging from using banned fishing gear to targeting protected kitefish shark.

While most of the allegations have not resulted in penalties beyond the inclusion of the boats on international “black lists” of vessels, countries from Mozambique to the U.S. have fined the company or its affiliates five times totaling more than $5 million. Vidal Armadores or its affiliates have landed in court six 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 while accusations of illegal fishing mounted against Vidal Armadores, Spain and the EU granted at least €8.2 million ($12 million) in subsidies to the family’s companies since the mid-1990s, government records show.


Filed by James Gerken  |