Former chief engineer cops plea in Pago Pago purse seiner pollution case

A former chief engineer from the purse seine tuna fishing vessel San Nikunau pleaded guilty today in federal court in Washington, D.C., to violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), announced Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno and U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.

Rolando Ong Vano served as the chief engineer on the vessel, which was owned and operated by Sanford Ltd.,(NZSX: SAN), during several fishing trips in the South Pacific between March 2006 and July 2011.

Sanford Ltd. and another prior chief engineer from the vessel have been charged with obstruction of justice and APPS violations, and are currently awaiting trial.

In December last year, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., returned a seven-count indictment charging Sanford Ltd. with violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.

Sanford Ltd. is a New Zealand based company that operates the Fishing Vessel (F/V) San Nikunau, a vessel that routinely delivers tuna to a cannery in American Samoa. According to the Department of Justice, the December, indictment, returned in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, describes a conspiracy in which the crew of the vessel routinely discharged oily bilge waste from the vessel directly into the sea during its fishing voyages since at least 2007. Sanford Ltd. was also charged with violating the APPS for failing to accurately maintain an oil record book for the vessel and with obstruction of justice for presenting false documents and for deceiving the Coast Guard during an inspection.

If convicted, Sanford Ltd. could be fined up to $500,000 per count, or twice the gross gain or loss that resulted from the criminal conduct. The indictment also seeks criminal forfeiture from Sanford Ltd. of more than $24 million for proceeds derived by Sanford Ltd. as a result of the criminal conduct.

According to today's plea agreement with Varo, it was routine practice onboard the San Nikunau to discharge directly into the sea oily bilge waste from the engine room and other areas of the vessel without using required pollution prevention equipment.

Before such waste can be discharged into the sea, it must first pass through an oil water separator, and the operation must be recorded in the vessel's oil record book.

Vano admitted to falsifying the oil record book and lying to U.S. Coast Guard inspectors that the oil water separator was used on the vessel when in fact it was not. The Coast Guard discovered the violations during an inspection of the vessel in American Samoa in July 2011. Sentencing in this matter is currently scheduled for September 2012.

This case was investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and by the Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.

Sanford said today that it was "aware that a Filipino relief chief engineer who served on the San Nikunau for a short time has entered into a plea agreement with the United States Department of Justice."

"Sanford Limited has not seen the plea agreement and was not privy to his conduct nor would it have condoned his conduct," continued the statement, adding, "Sanford Limited will continue to vigorously defend the allegations."

On December 16, 2011, Sanford announced that it had had concluded a Security Agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard to post a bond of US$1 million to secure the release of the San Nikunau, which had been held in Pago Pago since the Coast Guard inspection of the vessel.

Sanford describes the 79.69 m San Nikunau as one of three large scale freezer tuna purse seiners that Sanford operates throughout the Pacific and on occasions in New Zealand. The vessels target skipjack tuna, which is mostly used for canning, and is often unloaded and sold into one of the two canneries based in Pago Pago, American Samoa. The vessel has a mixed nationality crew of 19, most whom, says Sanford, have been on board since before it purchased the vessel from American owners in 2001.

April 18, 2012