By AP Legal Affairs Writer
updated 4/21/2006 1:27:42 PM ET 2006-04-21T17:27:42

A Spanish fishing magnate charged with illegally importing more than 26 tons of protected Chilean seabass pleaded not guilty Thursday in his first appearance in a U.S. courtroom.

A federal magistrate judge set bond at $500,000 for Antonio Vidal Pego, who was indicted along with the Uruguayan company Fadilur S.A. by a U.S. grand jury last September. Vidal, who owns a large commercial fishing fleet, was likely to be released later Thursday or Friday, his attorney said.

The indictment in September marked the first time the United States has brought criminal charges for illegal importation and sale of the Chilean seabass, also known as the Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish — a species that has been overfished and is the subject of international protection efforts.

Vidal faces up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines if convicted on all counts, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Vidal and Fadilur S.A. attempted to import about 53,000 pounds of seabass valued at nearly $315,000 from Singapore to Miami, according to the indictment. Vidal is also charged with obstruction of justice and false labeling.

Vidal was arrested Wednesday after arriving at Miami International Airport. He had been an international fugitive before that, with authorities on three continents searching for him and a warrant for his arrest circulated on Interpol.

"We are delighted that Mr. Vidal is finally in the hands of U.S. authorities," said Xavier Pastor, a Spanish marine biologist who is European vice president for the Oceana conservation group. "Now the courts have a chance to show that the days of impunity for pirate fishing are over."

Chilean seabass are a delicacy served in many fine restaurants. But they are slow-growing, deep sea species found in the sub-Antarctic oceans that can live 40 years and are increasingly in danger of extinction, Oceana officials said.

Vidal's attorney, Milton Hirsch, called his client "a successful and responsible figure in the fishing business in Spain" who is concerned about the environmental consequences of commercial fishing.

"We look forward to a full airing of these issues, a vigorous defense and a complete exoneration," Hirsch said.

According to Oceana, many of Vidal's ships have been labeled pirate fishing vessels by several international agreements. One of those ships, the Viarsa, was caught by Australian authorities for alleged illegal fishing but the crew was not convicted because its nets were not in the water and it was outside Australian territory when intercepted.

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