The pelagic fishermen who admitted their involvement in a £37 million pound “black fish” scam to cheat European Union fishing quota restrictions are fighting a bid by prosecutors to seize money from them.
The men, the majority of whom are from Shetland, have already admitted making false declarations to the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency and landing in excess of their agreed quota of mackerel and herring.
Fish processing company Shetland Catch Ltd where they landed their fish has also pleaded guilty to helping the men make the undeclared landings.
Now the Crown wants to seize assets from both the company and the trawlermen, claiming that they benefited from the false declarations. No figure has been produced by the Crown for the amount they say is owed, but it is thought to be millions of pounds in total.
David Hutchison, 65, Robert Polson, 48, Thomas Eunson, 56, Allen Anderson, 54, John Irvine, 67, Alistair Irvine, 62, Victor Buschini, 49, Hamish Slater, 52, Laurence Irvine, 65, Gary Williamson, 51, William Williamson, 64, George Henry, 59, John Stewart, 56, Colin Leask, 38, George Anderson, 55, Alexander Masson, 65, Alexander Wiseman, 59, and Shetland Catch Limited are all contesting the action.
During a hearing at the High Court in Glasgow before Lord Turnbull, advocate depute Barry Divers said of the scam: “This was a pre-meditated, sophisticated attempt to get round the EU fishing regulations and its aim was to make money.”
Defence counsel have argued that the fishermen and the company have already been penalised because the boats’ quotas were reduced after the scam came to light.
David Burns QC, representing Shetland Catch, told the court: “Under the reduced quotas imposed the company lost money in the first two years. Shetland Catch’s benefit – whatever that was – has been removed. “It is double jeopardy to have pay back and confiscation.” It was also argued by Mr Burns that the government knew that there was a certain amount of “black fishing” going on. It was further argued by counsel for the trawlermen that since each boat is run as a private company with shareholders no assessment can be made of any benefit to them as individuals.
Defence counsel argue that the case has been brought under the wrong legislation.
Mr Divers said: “The Crown is not seeking to pierce the corporate veil. The Crown position is that these individuals were able to receive substantial sums from black fish and that in turn has increased their value to the company.”
He told Lord Turnbull that forensic accountants have said they would be able to quantify each individual’s benefit from the scam. Mr Divers added: “The Crown will be required to place documents showing how benefit has been calculated for each individual.” Mr Divers asked Lord Turnbull to continue the matter to a proof hearing where evidence could be led by both sides.
Lord Turnbull said: “The Crown are still not saying to the accused this is what we think you should pay.”
The case was continued until next month when Lord Turnbull is expected to issue his judgement. Lord Turnbull, referring to the fact the Proceeds of Crime Act is usually used to seize the assets of drug dealers and gangsters, said: “I’m dealing with a group of individuals and a company who are very different from almost all individuals who find themselves involved in confiscation orders.”
All accused face an unlimited fine, but this cannot be imposed until after the matter of confiscation is dealt with.