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SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, September 25) – Two fishing vessels paid $10,000 fines each on Friday after their crews were caught attempting to illegally smuggle cigarettes into Majuro last week.

Police and customs officials confiscated three trash bags containing 95 cartons of cigarettes from Koo’s Fishing Company’s "Koo’s 101" and the Fong Seong 696, both of which are large purse seiners that fish for skipjack tuna.

Both originally built in Taiwan, Koo’s fishing vessel is flagged and based in the Marshall Islands, while the Fong Seong is flagged in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

But the enforcement action against the two fishing vessels sparked friction between officials at the Majuro Atoll local government and the national government’s Ministry of Finance office over the level of fine and release of the two vessels.

Majuro government tax office official Waylon Muller Muller said his agency considers the $10,000 fines too small. "We want the mother ships to know that we mean business," he said. "This (smuggling) has been going on for a long time."

Majuro’s port is used by Majuro-based as well as Taiwan and South Korean purse seiners to transship tuna from purse seine fishing vessels to larger mother vessels that transport the frozen tuna to canneries in Asia and the South Pacific.

Ministry of Finance assistant secretary for customs, tax and revenue Casten Nemra said that $10,000 fine is the maximum allowed under national government anti-tobacco smuggling regulations. After the vessels paid the fines, they were released from custody.

Nemra said his staff is currently preparing evidence for charges to be filed in court against a local store that was to receive the smuggled cigarettes. He said authorities were able to arrest the would-be smugglers because they were tipped off by people in the community to the smuggling as it was in progress.

The import duty for cigarettes is about $1.35 per pack of cigarettes.

Majuro officials stood to lose about $1,300 in taxes from the smuggling operation.

Muller said he believes that this incident is just the tip of much bigger smuggling operations that happen routinely in Majuro.

He also complained that while it was the Majuro local government’s police and tax authorities who actually made the arrests on Koo’s 101 and the Fong Seong 696, afterward they were shut out of the enforcement by the national government’s customs office.

"We don’t know what’s happening," he said. "But it’s our jurisdiction. We need to work together."

He said that it didn’t make sense that the national government would take fines and release the vessels when the matter was still being investigated by the police. Majuro local government treasurer Joseph Batol said the two governments "are supposed to work together, but we have no information from national."

September 25, 2006

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