Charges threatened four months ago were finally levied against Fishery Products International, Ltd. under Newfoundland’s provincial Fish Inspection Act — two counts of illegally marketing and shipping unprocessed yellowtail flounder to China.

Provincial Fisheries Minister Tom Rideout accused Atlantic Canada’s largest seafood company of violating Newfoundland’s laws in March, saying FPI was “breaking the laws of this province” when it shipped fish to China for processing. The offenses allegedly took place May 30, 2005 and June 14, 2005, in Marystown and Mount Pearl.

FPI lawyer Jim Thistle denies the charges, saying the fisheries minister at the time, Trevor Taylor, told the company twice it could ship the fish. “If you look back at those statements, government gave permission to ship fish out of the province,” said Thistle.

The company was also served with 52 other counts when the charges were levied July 7, but Thistle said those “appear to be a series of counts related to the number of days the fish was allegedly shipped.” If so, the federal court could consider them redundant and treat all the charges concurrently.

At the same time, talks between the St. John’s-based seafood company and its workers resumed in mid-July after breaking down in May soon after a proposed sale of some of FPI’s fish processing plants to Newfoundland entrepreneur Ches Penney collapsed.

Workers at FPI plants in Marystown and Fortune were hoping for the sale so they could go back to work. Both plants were shut down this year while FPI sought to streamline operations through layoffs and plant modernization. Workers at a Harbour Breton plant have not worked in two years and FPI trawlers had not begun fishing by mid-July.

Created in 1984 from a group of failed small processors, FPI is governed by a provincial law that limits its options. Three years later, the company was privatized, but the recently revised FPI Act requires the provincial government’s approval to sell its assets and mandates a majority of the board of directors live in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Union leaders called FPI’s offer of a five-year deal “insulting” when talks collapsed, but talks have resumed with the aid of a conciliator appointed by the province.

FPI claims its Newfoundland division suffered losses of about $50 million (Canadian) in the past four years, or more than $1 million a month on average.

Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, which represents nearly 20,000 Newfoundlanders working in fisheries-related jobs, said when talks ended, “Now we’re right back to where we were two months ago before this possibility of a sale came up.”

FPI offered the plants for sale in April, but board member John Risley said talks ended with the Penney Group because the FPI didn’t want to “give away” its assets.

Martin Sullivan, president of the Penney Group’s Ocean Choice International, disagreed, saying FPI tabled a “substantial and comprehensive” offer by Penney for the plants.

Since the sale failed, Rideout has urged FPI to reopen the closed plants and put union members back to work, saying, “If they say their property and their assets are not for sale, then I would assume they have a plan to operate some or all of them.”

The case against FPI for shipping yellowtail to China is not due back in court until Sept. 5, when FPI can enter a plea.