Two Spanish fishing firms received some of the largest fines in British maritime history today after breaking strict EU quotas.
Hijos De Vidal Bandin SA from Spain and its subsidiary company, UK-registered Sealskill Limited, were handed a £1.62 million total penalty after being found to have lied in logbooks and landing declarations to disguise the amount of fish caught illegally.
The judge described the companies' actions as "systematic, repeated and cynical".
Judge Graham Cottle added: "It involved flagrant, repeated and long-term abuse of the regulations, carried out by the masters of both vessels with full knowledge, complicity and direction of the Spanish registered company.
"It was targeting what was, at the time, an endangered species of fish."
Two Spanish boat masters - Jose Antonio Perez Garcia and Jose Manuel Martinez Sanchez - and two company directors - Manuel Vidal Suarez and Maria Dolores Vidal Marino - admitted flouting European fishing quota laws in British waters.
It is estimated those involved in the plot helped boost the companies' collective finances by more than half a million pounds.
The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) welcomed the penalty, the biggest in its history, while environmental campaigners Greenpeace said the case underlined the underhand tactics of some of the "rich, industrial-sized fleets" at the expense of "law-abiding, smaller" fishermen.
Truro Crown Court in Cornwall heard how the scam was uncovered in July 2010 off the Isles of Scilly when an unlogged haul of fish was discovered on the Coyo Tercero, owned by Hijos De Vidal Bandin SA and skippered by Garcia.
Officers from the MMO investigated and found the master had been fiddling logbooks over how much he had caught.
References in the logbooks to a second vessel, the O'Genita - owned by Sealskill Limited and skippered by Sanchez - prompted a full MMO probe.
They found significant catches of much sought-after hake had been illegally and misleadingly passed from one vessel to the other after being caught off the coast of Scotland, known as transshipping. It was destined for fishing markets in northern Spain, the court was told.
The judge said: "These serious breaches of regulations came to light on a routine boarding of the Coyo Tercero. The fish found on board did not tally with the official log. Notebooks recorded the actual quantity of fish landed."
Earlier this year, the four entered pleas to a total of nine charges of falsifying logbooks and handling declarations between August 2008 and August 2010.
Suarez and Marino, company directors of Hijos De Vidal Bandin SA and Sealskill Limited respectively, entered pleas on behalf of their companies and for themselves as individuals.
The skippers and companies pleaded guilty to all of the charges relating to falsifying logbooks and transshipping.
Brian Lett, QC, defending all the parties, apologised on behalf of his clients and said they were remorseful.
The judge said the companies had incurred losses since the incident, after two vessels were temporarily impounded pending the investigation.
He added: "It would be wrong to impose a fine that would effectively put the Spanish company out of business."
In addition to the corporate penalties, the two skippers were each ordered to pay £5,000 in fines.
MMO lead investigation officer Danny Poulding said today's total corporate penalty, which includes a bill for £195,000 in costs paid equally between the two firms, is the largest in its history.
Speaking outside court, he added: "The MMO is very pleased that the court has recognised this as a serious offence.
"As the judge said, this was a cynical abuse of the system and I am hoping it will send quite a clear deterrent that this will not be tolerated."
Ariana Densham, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, called on Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon to "address the problems" within current EU policy.
She said: "The system that allowed this to happen needs to be fixed. This case is not a one-off. It's a symptom of Europe's farcical fishing rules. The Vidals were permitted to fish under UK flags, using UK quota, and receive huge EU subsidies, with none of the proceeds ever feeding back into the UK economy.
"Meanwhile, the UK's sustainable inshore fishermen are struggling to get access to quota and Government support. The system is skewed in favour of rich, powerful, industrial-scale fishing companies, when really it should be supporting low impact, sustainable fishermen."
All four defendants had been allowed to return to Spain ahead of today's sentencing.
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