Caught: fishing leaders in £15 million racket

SIX skippers have admitted making illegal landings worth almost £15 million in the biggest scam in the history of Scotland's fishing industry.

The fishermen carried out the clandestine activity over three years, concealing their illegal catches of "black fish" from officials.

The landings involved thousands of tonnes of the herring and mackerel – the species at the centre of the so called "mackerel war" between Europe and the Icelandic and Faroese governments.

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One of the men is vice chairman and another is a director of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association – the organisation spearheading the campaign for a European-wide ban on Faroese and Icelandic mackerel imports.

A court heard yesterday that the skippers were helped in their fraud by Shetland Catch, one of the country's leading fish processing companies.

Last night, Vic Thomas of Friends of the Earth Scotland said the case may have set Scottish fishermen's demands for greater local control of fisheries management "back for generations".

He said: "This was sheer greed. Nobody can support black fish landings. It is just crass racketeering and it's not doing the Scottish fishing fleet any good whatsoever.

"A lot of fishermen and local politicians are making the case for more local control because the Common Fisheries Policy has not worked. But the problem is that if we are pressing for more autonomous decision making then this is the sort of thing that is going to knock that back for generations."

The skippers, who appeared yesterday at the High Court in Glasgow, are all from Shetland, three from Whalsay, known as "millionaires' island", a small isle off the north-east tip of the Shetland mainland. But it is understood that further charges are pending against other skippers elsewhere in Scotland.

The six – David Hutchison, 64, Robert Polson, 47, Thomas Eunson, 55, Allen Anderson, 54, John Irvine, 66, and Allister Irvine, 61 – admitted contravening the Sea Fishing Enforcement of Community Control Measures (Scotland) Order 2000 and the Fisheries Act 1981 by knowingly or recklessly providing false information to the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency. Hutchison is vice chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association and Polson a director.

The offences were committed between January 2002 and March 2005. The landings were made at the premises of Shetland Catch, Gremista, Lerwick. Shetland Catch, which is a joint venture involving the Lerwick Port Authority, the Shetland pelagic fleet and factory staff, also pled guilty to assisting the skippers in making the undeclared landings.

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Polson admitted 46 undeclared landings totalling 3,682,000; Hutchison 49 landings totalling 3,698,433, Eunson 18 landings totalling 1,457,243; Anderson four landings totalling 442,168; John Irvine 56 landings totalling 3,658,981 and Allister Irvine 25 landings totalling 1,828,981.

The court was told that the men falsely declared the quantity of fish they landed as a means of evading the annual fishing quota allowed to each vessel. The vessels involved are all Shetland registered pelagic trawlers: the Charisma, the Serene and the Zephyr.

They were caught following an investigation that began in September 2005 when two of Scotland's largest fish processing plants were raided by police and fishery protection officers in Shetland and Aberdeenshire.

Investigation teams swooped on Fresh Catch in Peterhead and Shetland Catch in a co-ordinated operation involving Grampian Police, Northern Constabulary and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency (SFPA), the organisation responsible for the enforcement of fisheries regulations north of the Border.

The court was told that the SFPA suspected that there was widespread illegal landing of pelagic fish, and accountants were brought in to analyse pelagic fish factories in Scotland. They found that Shetland Catch's earnings could not be supported by the declared landings.

Advocate depute Peter Ferguson QC said: "This information supported the SFPA's suspicions that there had been a significant under-declaration of fish by Shetland Catch and the accused."

He added: "Each fishing vessel has a fixed quota allocation and masters had at the time to complete their daily log to within a 20 per cent tolerance. The master is responsible for the accuracy of the declaration of the fish landed. The criminal conduct being prosecuted here is the making of false declarations by individual skippers."

All six were served with confiscation orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act and sentence was deferred until November.

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Speaking after the hearing, Scott Pattison, the director of operations at the Crown Office, said: "This is not a victimless crime. The consequences of overfishing on this scale are far reaching and the impact on fish stocks and the marine environment is potentially devastating.

"The legislation is to protect the marine environment for the good of all and to safeguard the fishing industry. We will continue working with police and other agencies to prosecute those individuals or organisations who disregard it for their personal gain."

Detective Superintendent Gordon Gibson of Grampian Police, who led this investigation, said it had been extremely complex and required many months of meticulously detailed work by police officers. "This was criminality at an extremely high level," he said.

A spokesman for the Scottish Fishermen's Federation said: "These unfortunate incidents occurred a long time ago and the industry has already paid the penalty in the form of reduced quotas in the intervening years. The legal registration of buyers and sellers in 2005 has also helped to produce a better system for managing the complexities of handling fish catches."

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