The fishermen operated a sophisticated deception, which allowed them to land £47.5m more mackerel and herring in Shetland than they were allowed under European Union quotas.
Judge Lord Turnbull told the men at the High Court in Glasgow yesterday they had been involved in a “cynical and sophisticated” scheme, which was “a deliberate and calculated attempt to evade the quota system”.
The fine was welcomed by the Crown Office, the Scottish Government and animal protection charity WWF Scotland, which accused the fishermen of threatening “the public good for the benefit of a few”.
Grampian Police Detective Superintendent Gordon Gibson, who led the police investigation, said the scale of crime committed by the men was “at a level rarely seen before”.
He said: “It was apparent during our investigations that these individuals totally disregarded any legislation to prevent this occurring, and as can be seen from the landings made, they amassed huge sums of money through their own greed. Today this caught up with them in a court of law.”
Lord Turnbull described the men as normally law-abiding, but added: “The motivation was purely financial. Those who were already making a good living saw this as a way more income could be generated and were prepared to participate in deliberate lies and falsehoods.”
The 17 skippers in court were ordered to pay fines totalling £720,000.
Fish processing plant Alexander Buchan Ltd, which no longer operates, had already admitted landing £4.8m black fish at Peterhead over a two-year period.
The firm was fined £240,000 by Lord Turnbull, who said the landing of black fish “depended entirely on the willingness of fish processing companies to install systems to disguise the actual landings figures”, which he called “the great deception”.
A second Peterhead processing plant, Fresh Catch, admitted landing £10.5m of illegal fish on the same day.
A third company, Shetland Catch, has already pleaded guilty to landing £47.5m of black fish.
Fresh Catch and Shetland Catch have still to be sentenced, along with a further six skippers who admitted being involved in the scam.
In court, it was revealed that the true extent of the black fishing in Scotland from 2002 to 2005 was £62.8m, with hundreds of illegal landings at Shetland and Peterhead.
Stephen Bellamy, 49, from Fraserburgh, John Smith, 36, and James Smith 54, both from Peterhead, Ernest Simpson, 64, Allan Simpson, 42 both of Fraserburgh, and Oswald McRonald, 63, from Banff, and Fresh Catch Limited admitted landing illegal catches. The offences were committed between 2002 and 2005.
They will be sentenced in May.
All 23 fishermen and three fish processing companies were snared during Operation Trawler mounted by the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency – now known as Marine Scotland – and the police.
Suspicion first fell on Shetland Catch and Fresh Catch when accountants examined their books and discovered that the earnings they were paying tax on far exceeded their declared landings of fish.
This led to a full-scale investigation carried out jointly by the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency and Grampian Police and Northern Constabulary.
Alexander Buchan, based in Peterhead, was also investigated when an extra conveyor belt was discovered.
Using this device, up to 70 per cent of a catch could go undeclared. This company, which is no longer trading, has been ordered to pay back £165,000.
Scales at Lerwick-based processing company Shetland Catch Ltd and at Fresh Catch in Peterhead were set to underestimate the weight of the fish being landed by the boats. The true readings were on a computer screen in the loft area of both buildings.
The fines imposed by Lord Turnbull come on top of almost £3m in proceeds of crime which has been confiscated from them. The skippers have also been penalised by having their fishing quotas slashed.
Speaking after the hearings, Lindsey Miller, head of the serious and organised crime division of the Crown Office, said: “Organised crime takes many forms. These individuals may not have been involved in drug dealing or prostitution, but let us make no mistake that they were involved in significant and serious organised criminality.
“The legislation is there to protect the marine environment for the good of all and to safeguard the future of the fishing industry. These men disregarded it for their own financial gain and, in a clear example of successful working between the law enforcement agencies involved, have now been brought to justice and made to pay for their crimes.”
He added that police investigations into other landings were continuing.
Welcoming the fines, fisheries secretary Richard Lochhead described the case as a “shameful reminder” of the culture that once existed in some sectors of Scotand’s fishing industry.
“These cases demonstrate Scotland’s commitment to transparent, sustainable fishing in our waters, backed up with effective enforcement. It is important all countries in Europe do what we have done in Scotland by stamping out such illegal activity.
“There is no doubt that these illegal activities are a stark and shameful reminder of the culture that existed in some sectors of the fishing industry in past years, but they do not reflect the much improved culture we see today.
Dr Mireille Thom, senior marine policy officer at WWF Scotland, said of the skippers’ actions: “Deliberately ignoring quota rules by landing ‘black fish’ isn’t a victim-less offence. Such landings not only undermine the conservation of fish stocks and the fortune of the fleets that fish them, they also distort competition by depressing fish prices.
“In short, they threaten the public good for the benefit of a few.”