Mass. fish broker cleared in alleged bluefin smuggling scheme

Robert Kliss and his Massachusetts-based bluefin tuna company North Atlantic Traders Ltd. were indicted for smuggling, falsifying records and conspiracy after a four-year NOAA investigation.

In July, a federal jury acquitted the federal tuna dealer after deliberating for less than a hour.

“This is a case the government never should have brought,” said Kliss’s Attorney Barry Pollack in an interview with Wicked Local.

Allegations of a bluefin tuna smuggling operation caught the attention of federal investigators in 2012, and North Atlantic Traders was named as the broker by one fisherman. Investigators claimed Kliss was arranging the export of bluefin tuna caught over federal catch limits to Japan and netting around $135,000 from the sales.

But one government witness, New York fisherman Michael Papajohn who pleaded guilty to violating fishing regulations in 2015, stipulated during his hearings that he and Kliss had never discussed the status of any fishing permits — testimony prosecutors were preparing to elicit at trial.

Kliss’ attorneys were made aware of this fact just before the trial started and Judge William Young barred prosecutors from eliciting that testimony.

According to Pollack, the firm’s lawyers went on to discover that may government witnesses claimed they had been pressured into implicating Kliss and North Atlantic Traders.

“The federal agents engaged in misconduct by pressuring witnesses to make exaggerated statements, which the jury saw through,” said Pollack in a press release.

Pollack also presented evidence that Kliss was in British Columbia at the time he was allegedly orchestrating the illegal operation.

“My evidence was my stamped passport along with my son’s,” Kliss said in an interview with Wicked Local. “That’s how bad the investigators and (prosecuting) attorneys are.”

Kliss and his attorneys believe the case served to justify NOAA’s law enforcement budget. According to Kliss, 188 agents received special training certifying them as federal investigators for NMFS but only four cases have faced criminal prosecution since.

“I think it was a conspiracy by the federal government to justify their investigators,” Kliss said.

“The verdict of not guilty reflected more than two decades of regulatory compliance by my client and its dedication to a sustainable fishery,” said Stephen Ouellette, attorney for North Atlantic Traders. “That NOAA’s overzealous prosecution in this and other cases following closely on the heels of the highly critical assessment of NOAA law enforcement by the Department of Commerce Office of the Inspector General can only be seen as an attempt to justify NOAA’s enforcement budget at the expense of the fishing industry and fundamental principles of justice.”

Kliss is now asking the federal government to pay for his attorney’s feeds after being cleared, saying the case really boiled down to investigators not doing their due diligence over the course of the four-year investigation.

About the author

Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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