Whitby fleet fined £122,800 for defying North Sea quotas

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The Independent Online

The once bustling fishing town of Whitby, North Yorkshire, has displayed no lack of courage amid diminishing North Sea cod stocks and new European quotas in recent years. Innovations have included Britain's first port-based sea fishermen's apprenticeships, introduced by a local trawlerman, Arnold Locker.

But the fishermen's latest strategy for making a living out of an industry which once employed hundreds of peoplelanded the captains of virtually the entire trawler fleet in court yesterday

In scenes unprecedented in fishing history, 10 captains - representing 90 per cent of Whitby's fleet - stood side by side in the dock at Hull Crown Court, where they were fined £122,800 for fiddling their books to hide the fact they were exceeding fishing quotas imposed by the European Commission to protect the North Sea's dwindling stocks. So many fishermen were in court that the jury box had to be used to accommodate them all. They pleaded guilty to 55 charges of not recording accurate accounts.

Among them was Mr Locker who, as chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, is more accustomed to lobbying at Westminster than standing in court.

The court heard that the men's beam trawlers, which fish for cod, haddock and whiting in the North Sea and near Norway, were stuck in Whitby's picturesque harbour as a result of a government crackdown. Their response over three months in 2003 was to hide quantities from their books, while selling it at dockside auction.

The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) became suspicious when recorded landings dropped by 35 per cent. Information was sought on four vessels but the net spread wider, said Simon Phillips, Defra's barrister. He claimed the amount of black market fish was worth £475,000, but the defendants admitted £149,000. Someone at the Whitby fish market was in on the act too, according to Mr Phillips, ensuring the illegal fish went undeclared.

Defra's fisheries officers boarded ships at sea, raided offices and seized computer zip drives, the court heard. At one point Captain Steven Veart hurled an officer's logbook into the sea from his vessel, Christina, at the Whitby quayside. He said he was annoyed "by a jobsworth, bureaucrat".

Ian Lawrie, representing the defendants, told the judge: "What you have here is the entire fishing fleet of Whitby. It is a sad reflection of the perilous state of the white fishing industry of a town. It is literally on its knees. How it got there is a long process." Whitby's fishermen enviously saw Scotland's £40m subsidy for its fishing industry and received none, he said.

The offences were not motivated by greed, Mr Lawrie added. "They were a commercial necessity."

Judge Simon Jack accepted that the men were trying to protect "a community, employment and a way of life" and that some earned as little as £8,000 a year. But he told them: "These regulation are in place to protect fish stocks which some say are near total collapse."

Individual fines ranged from £3,000 to £12,000.