Update: Richmond seafood wholesaler fined, placed on probation for illegal import of fish into U.S.

Owner placed on a one-year probation and the company ordered to pay $150,000 fine within six months

The owner of a Richmond-based seafood company has been sentenced to one-year probation and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine after pleading guilty earlier this year to illegally importing thousands of pounds of rotten seafood into the U.S.

Seven Seas Fish Company – with headquarters on Vulcan Way near No. 5 road – previously agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and was ordered to do so within six months at a sentencing hearing Dec. 6 in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The company – also known as 7 Seas – will also be on probation for three years with increased scrutiny and surveillance of its imports into the U.S.

Owner John Heras, 78, and the company admitted to the district court in October to importing more than 9,000 pounds of “potentially adulterated fish” into the U.S. between October 2014 and August 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“This activity leads consumers to be concerned about food safety,” said Judge Mary Alice Theiler at the sentencing hearing. 

The tainted frozen corvina – a type of white fish similar to sea bass – was previously refused entry into the U.S. after that country’s food and drug administration (FDA) ruled it to be “too decomposed and putrid,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In June 2014, Seven Seas had purchased the fish from a seafood company in Mexico for $36,375. The Richmond company then tried to import the fish into the U.S. from Mexico.

But when the food inspection officers examined the fish, they determined that one third of the samples they examined were rotten, and denied the shipment entry into the U.S.

Seven Seas then arranged to lawfully ship the fish to its Richmond plant through the U.S., claiming it would be sold in Canada, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

After the corvina arrived in B.C., Heras cooked and ate some of the fish and claimed he found nothing wrong with it.

Heras then encouraged others within Seven Seas to sell the fish to customers in Washington state and elsewhere, according to the department of justice.

Approximately 9,020 pounds of frozen corvina was imported into the U.S. without the required notice to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The FDA did not find any illnesses linked to the fish.

In a statement, Seven Seas said it has “vigorously defended the quality and safety of the 2014 fish shipment in question,” adding that Heras – who founded the company in 1967 – is no longer active in the business.

But according to the department of justice, Seven Seas has a “tarnished record” regarding its compliance with import regulations.

In 2008, around $100,000 of Seven Seas’ Canadian salmon seized because it had been caught by illegal gill netting and sold in violation of Canadian law.

And in 2009, the company was fined $50,000 for selling salmon without notifying regulators after the fish had been detained because it was found unfit for human consumption.

The fish was sold for mink feed.

“On two prior occasions, this company put its financial success over the food import regulations and the safety of customers,” said U.S. attorney Brian T. Moran.

“Now, with a third strike, it is appropriate that the company and its part-owner face a federal criminal conviction and its consequences.”

In a statement, Seven Seas said that neither the 2008 or 2009 events were criminal, adding the company worked with a buying agent who sourced the fish from the Fraser River and worked with both Seven Seas and Indigenous communities. 

"Some of the this – meant for the buying agent and First Nations, and never bought or sold by Seven Seas – unfortunately co-mingled with fish that had been lawfully caught and purchased by Seven Seas," reads the statement. 

All of the fish was transported together for processing, leading to an "inability to track which fish had been legally caught and purchased by Seven Seas," according to the company, which explained it did not challenge the seizure of the seafood and no longer works with that buying agent. 

The company also said that the 2009 shipment sold for mink feed was never intended for human consumption as it was end-of-life-cycle salmon, and that it fully co-operated with the FDA and U.S. Customs in both the 2008 and 2009 cases.

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