TWO of Scotland's largest fish processing plants were raided by police and fishery protection officers in Shetland and Aberdeenshire yesterday as part of a major investigation into an alleged trade in illegal fish landings.
The investigation teams swooped on Fresh Catch in Peterhead and Shetland Catch in Lerwick, two of Europe's biggest pelagic processing companies, in a co-ordinated operation at 9am yesterday.
The Scotsman understands that the raids were carried out after an inquiry into allegations of clandestine landings of "black fish" at the Buchan and Shetland ports. Police divers were deployed to Peterhead harbour, close to the quayside premises of Fresh Catch, as part of the investigation.
The operation involved Grampian Police, Northern Constabulary and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency (SFPA), the Executive arm responsible for the enforcement of fisheries regulations north of the Border.
Few details are being given about the investigation. Alistair Stewart, the director of the sea fisheries inspectorate at the SFPA, said in a statement that it has "been working with other agencies to investigate fish landings made to the Fresh Catch fish processing factory in Peterhead and the Shetland Catch fish processing factory in Lerwick".
He added: "The SFPA and Crown Office are now conducting criminal investigations into alleged offences."
Fresh Catch processes pelagic fish, such as mackerel and herring, at its plant in Peterhead, the largest of its kind in Europe, and has a workforce of around 100. The company, whose managing director and owner is a local businessman, Chris Anderson, exports fish products to over 50 countries and has twice won the Queen's Awards for Enterprise in International Trade since 1997.
Shetland Catch is also one of the largest pelagic factories in Europe and the company, a joint venture involving the Lerwick Port Authority, the Shetland pelagic fleet and factory staff, is a vital part of the Shetland economy, employing around 130 people at its Gremista plant. Earlier this year, the company was ranked 48 out of 100 of the UK's fastest growing companies in the Deloitte Indy 100 index.
In January, John Goodlad, the former chief executive of Shetland Fishermen's Association and a former vice-president of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, was appointed chairman of the company.
No-one was available for comment at Fresh Catch yesterday. But the management of Shetland Catch issued a statement, saying:
"The inspection is believed to be part of a wider exercise being conducted by the agency throughout Scotland to monitor fish being landed, to check compliance with quotas.
"The SFPA is responsible for collecting information on fishing activity and catches, and has powers to enter business premises used for the treatment, storage or sale of sea fish. Management are co-operating fully with the inspectors."
Last year the Scottish Executive unveiled plans to introduce improved monitoring, control and enforcement measures as part of a new offensive against illegal landings, which have plagued the industry for more than two decades. Some industry sources claim the scale of the black market landings could match the amount of fish being legally sold each year.