ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A defunct fish processor accused of letting 400 tons of Alaska salmon rot and stiffing the fishermen who sold it has been charged with five misdemeanors for what prosecutors called "an environmental and economic catastrophe."
The Alaska attorney general's office filed charges of violating Alaska's Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act this week against Wild Alaskan Seafood Co. LLC, and its primary manager, Jeremy M. Oliver, 36, both of Washington state. Also charged was the company's banker, Strategica Import-Export Financial Group LLC, and its manager, Jay Enis, both of Florida.
Neither Oliver nor Enis could be reached for comment Thursday.
If convicted, the men could face up to a year in jail on each charge, and the corporations could face a $200,000 fine per charge.
Oliver had little experience in the Alaska seafood industry when he helped form Wild Alaskan Seafood in 2004 with the plan to freeze whole salmon for shipment to out-of-state wholesalers.
He leased a processing plant in Ekuk, once a Yup'ik Eskimo village on Alaska's southwest coast, and told fishermen that an Oregon company would buy their fish and his employees would renovate the plant. Strategica bought Wild Alaskan Salmon's assets in early June 2004 and the right to control its activities, but Oliver remained manager.
Prosecutors say Oliver painted a rosy picture of the business plan.
He hired dozens of seasonal workers and started operations on June 14, 2004, purchasing salmon from more than three dozen fishermen.
But fishermen almost immediately began warning state officials that the company's storage wasn't adequate.
When Alaska State Troopers visited Ekuk on June 27, 2004, an ice machine wasn't working, freezers were too warm, and water in refrigerated sea water tanks used to hold newly delivered fish was too warm, prosecutors say.
A state Department of Environmental Conservation health officer inspected the plant a few days later, on July 1, and learned the company did not have a required sanitation plan or a "hazard analysis critical control plan."
Then, on July 9, a fisherman told troopers that the cold storage tanks contained 50,000 pounds of rotting salmon.
Health officer Cherie Rice reported finding rotting fish in the cold storage tanks and decomposed fish in freezers. She also said employees had acknowledged processing spoiled fish.
Troopers also found overfilled storage tanks, processed fish that were only partially frozen, glaze water that was not changed frequently enough, unclean storage bins used to transfer fish, and freezer units that were not cold enough. In the egg house, they found buckets of salmon roe coated in fly larvae.
Rice issued a notice of violation that detained 600,000 pounds of refrigerated fish and 570,000 frozen fish.
The company continued to buy fish, though, prosecutors say.
When a health inspector arrived July 20, employees were threatening to strike because they had not been paid. Health officer Ernie Thomas found more contaminated fish, Oliver was no longer on the premises, and Strategica had obtained a temporary restraining order that declared him a trespasser.
The spoiled fish were destroyed to avert a public health catastrophe and ensure the integrity and reputation of the Alaska's seafood industry, prosecutors said.
Health officials have destroyed large quantities of fish before but not since the early 1980s, said Manny Soares, the seafood section chief for the Division of Environmental Health. In Oliver's case, prosecutors estimate 800,000 pounds of salmon were wasted and about 100 employees were unpaid or underpaid for their work.
"We haven't encountered something like this in the last 10, 15 years," Soares said.
Inspectors found salmon, primarily sockeye, in all stages, he said.
"Some were still good," Soares said. "Some were obviously, totally rotten, and all degrees between."
The charges against the Oliver and the other defendants involved processing adulterated seafood, adulteration of food, mishandling seafood, processing salmon without a hazard analysis critical control point plan and processing salmon without a sanitation plan.
Strategica was administratively dissolved by the Florida Division of Corporations in September 2005.