Caught! Scottish skippers fined £720,000 over fishing fraud


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The Independent Online

Seventeen Scottish skippers and a processing firm were fined £720,000 yesterday for their part in Britain's biggest fishing scam.

The "black fish" fraud netted the group millions of pounds as they cooperated with buyers to evade EU quotas and illegally sell vast amounts of mackerel and herring. Three firms, one in Shetland and two in Peterhead, were involved in the fraud, worth almost £63m.

The sophisticated scam involved the manipulation of the scales that weighed the skippers' haul at processing factories. Large catches were deliberately recorded as weighing less than they did, which allowed the fisherman to sell more than quotas allowed.

Judge Lord Turnbull called the scam a "cynical and sophisticated" operation which had the "connivance of a number of different interested parties". He described it as "an episode of shame" for the pelagic fishing industry.

Hamish Slater, 53, and Alexander Masson, 66, both from Fraserburgh, were fined a respective £80,000 and £50,000, while Alexander Wiseman, 60, from Banff, was also fined £50,000. Another 13 men from Shetland were fined for their role in the scam.

One of the processing companies, Alexander Buchan, was fined £240,000 for helping the vessel masters land the undeclared fish. The pelagic fishermen, who committed the offences to evade the annual EU fishing quota, had already been ordered to hand over almost £3m in confiscation orders at a previous court hearing.

Since 1970, quotas have been put in place by the EU to ease the pressure on overexploited fish stocks. These quotas were eased significantly after a meeting of EU fishery ministers in December 2011, drawing an angry reaction from conservationists who accused them of ignoring scientific advice. The convictions came as the result of a seven-year investigation, Operation Trawler, after the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency (SFPA), now Marine Scotland, became suspicious about widespread illegal landing of fish within the pelagic fleet.

Shetland Catch premises were searched on 27 September 2005 and officials found that scales used to weigh fish coming into the factory had been manipulated to provide false weights.

Management was able to put fake wastage figures into a computer in the main factory, accessible to inspectors, which would be deducted from the actual weight shown on the screen.

Passing sentence, Lord Turnbull said the proceedings brought "embarrassment and shame" to the skippers and their families. He said: "The system through which this was achieved was both cynical and sophisticated and involved the connivance of a number of different interested parties, some of whom have benefited but have not been prosecuted."

The Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said the scam was a "stark and shameful" reminder of a culture that "existed in some sectors of the fishing industry in past years".

Three more fishermen pleaded guilty yesterday in a separate case in the same investigation. James Smith, 54, from Fraserburgh, John Smith, 36, from Peterhead and Stephen Bellamy, 59, from Fraserburgh, all admitted landing undeclared fish at Fresh Catch in Peterhead and at Shetland Catch in Lerwick.