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International tuna smuggling operation results in conviction

MIAMI - A 64-year-old St. Petersburg resident pleaded guilty here yesterday for his involvement in the illegal importation of more than 11,000 pounds of yellowfin tuna from Trinidad and Tobago into Miami in violation of the laws, treaties, and regulations of the United States, contrary to the Lacey Act, Title 16, United States Code, Sections 3372(a)(2)(A) and 3373(d)(1)(A). The plea follows a joint investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

George A. Townsend, III, entered his guilty plea before the Honorable Joan A. Lenard, United States District Court Judge, who sent sentencing in this matter for June 2, 2008, at 2:00 pm. The charges carry a possible sentence of up to five years of imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and a criminal fine of the greater of $250,000, or twice the intended gain from the relevant conduct. Additionally, the Information alleges that $23,140.04 in funds derived from the criminal conduct is forfeitable to the United States.

According to the allegations in the Information and statements in court, Townsend, a citizen of the United States, owned and operated the Canadian registered fishing vessel UNDA, through a Bahamian registered company, “SUNDANCE BRAZIL, LTD.,” and a business he incorporated in Canada, “3093731 NOVA SCOTIA LIMITED.” The F/V UNDA was a commercial longline fishing vessel.

In order to meet its treaty obligations related to international fisheries conservation, regulate the activities of its registered fishing vessels, and insure compliance with its conservation and safety regulations, the Government of Canada prohibits any person on board a Canadian vessel such as the UNDA from fishing or trans-shipping fish in waters other than Canadian fisheries waters, unless the vessel holds a license issued by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. The F/V UNDA did not hold the required license, necessary to legally fish or trans-ship fish on the high seas or through Trinidad and Tobago.

On June 7, 2005, Townsend caused approximately 11,063 pounds of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) to be shipped in foreign commerce from Trinidad and Tobago to a seafood dealer in Miami, Fla., contrary to Sections 65.(1) and 68 of Canada's Fishery (General) Regulations.

Yellowfin tuna is a commercially valuable seafood product, which is a species heavily impacted by Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fisheries efforts.  Atlantic yellowfin is regulated through the efforts of many maritime nations, through the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a multi-lateral treaty to which both the United States and Canada are parties. ICCAT is responsible for the science-based conservation of some 30 types of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas. The Convention, established by a Conference in 1966, formally entered into force in 1969 and now has 45 contracting parties.

The ICCAT group conducts a wide range of research into the biometry, ecology, and oceanography of the focus species, with a special emphasis on the effects of fishing on stock abundance. The Commission's efforts also include data compilation work relative to current trends and conditions of the fishery resources in the Convention area. Additionally, ICCAT undertakes collateral research on fish species caught during directed efforts for tuna in the Convention area, known as "by-catch" (principally sharks) which are not investigated by any other international fishery organization. The United States currently chairs ICCAT.

R. Alexander Acosta, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, commended the coordinated investigative efforts of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, Special Agents of U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Miami and Officers of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans which brought the investigation to a successful conclusion. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.