LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Virginia man who imported more than 10 million pounds of falsely labeled fish from Vietnam was sentenced to 5 years in prison, one of the longest sentences ever for a crime prosecutors say is a growing problem. Peter Xuong Lam, 49, former president of Virginia Star Seafood Corp., also was ordered to pay more than $12 million in anti-dumping duties.
A Virginia-based fish importer involved in the scheme, 64-year-old Arthur Yavelberg, was sentenced to 1 year of probation.
Lam and Yavelberg are among a dozen people and companies convicted of importing mislabeled fish to avoid federal tariffs, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement. The alleged organizer of the conspiracy, Henry Nguyen, is a fugitive and is believed to be in Vietnam.
Virginia Star and others imported $15.5 million worth of catfish illegally labeled and imported as sole, grouper, flounder, snakehead, channa and conger pike. The frozen fish was actually Pangasius hypophthalmus, a catfish sold under the names swai or striped pangasius.
There has been an anti-dumping duty on Pangasius hypophthalmus from Vietnam since 2003, when U.S. catfish farmers complained the fish was being imported at less than fair market value.
This kind of fish fraud is increasing – and not just from abroad, said prosecutor Joseph Johns, chief of Environmental Crimes in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. Some domestic fish farmers have been caught passing off their farm-bred product as wild.
“It appears to be a widespread problem,” Johns said. “Anywhere you look within the seafood industry, you tend to find violations of this kind going on.”
Americans may be more susceptible to fish scams because they tend to purchase and eat fillets instead of the whole fish, Johns said.
“Most consumers in this country are not going to notice the difference (between species), so people are blatantly being ripped off,” Johns said.
The number of fish scams is expected to increase, as demand for seafood increases along with the planet’s population, Johns said.
“You are going to see wild natural fisheries decline and an increase in farmed fish,” he said. “Just go to the grocer and look at the price difference between wild and farm-raised fish, and you’ll understand the incentive for unscrupulous people.”
Lam was convicted in October of conspiring to import mislabeled fish to avoid federal import tariffs, and three counts of dealing in fish that he knew had been imported illegally. Yavelberg was convicted of a misdemeanor conspiracy count at the same trial. Both were sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez.