A veteran Whalsay pelagic skipper facing a fine for illegally landing mackerel and herring claimed today that he was supporting his local community.
David Hutchison, 66, is one of 13 Shetland and four Fraserburgh skippers expected to appear at the High Court in Edinburgh during the course of this week over their participation in a “black fish” scam thought to have been worth more than £40 million.
Prosecutors have already clawed back almost £3 million by confiscating illegal profits, paving the way for judge Lord Turnbull to levy further financial penalties for lying about the size of catches.
The judge announced today that he does not intend to pass sentence on any of the accused until the end of next month.
Before any fines are imposed, the fishermen’s lawyers will have an opportunity to argue for leniency.
Defence QC Murdo Macleod, for Hutchison, of Hillhead, Symbister, told the court today that the illegal landings were an industry-wide practice – but Hutchison regretted the part he had played. He has already been served with a confiscation order for £140,900.
Hutchison first went to sea 52 years ago and has been a skipper since 1969. He was master of the Charisma.
Mr Macleod said he had also played a prominent role in the Shetland Pelagic Fishermen’s Association and as vice-chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Fish Association had taken part in national and international negotiations.
The lawyer went on to describe how the scam had grown up during years when quotas were more stringent and there was more competition. All the boats sailing from Whalsay, like Hutchison, began illegally landing extra fish.
The lawyer went on to explain how those involved in this week’s hearings landed their herring and mackerel at the Shetland Catch processing plant at Gremista, Lerwick.
“A further factor was a desire by the accused to support the processing plant in Shetland when higher prices were being paid in Norway and Denmark making landing in Shetland less attractive. The only way to land in Shetland was to land larger quantities of fish.”
Mr Macleod said the Shetland-based skippers also resented competitors from Iceland and the Faroe Islands setting their own quotas because they were not part of the European Union.
Other boats from both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic had escaped prosecution, he claimed.
“Hutchison feels an acute sense of comparative injustice. Not because he is being punished, more because others who broke the rules have escaped any penalties.”
The skippers involved have admitted breaching the Sea Fishing (Enforcement of Community Controls Measures) (Scotland) Order of 2000 and the Fisheries Act 1981. Offences were committed between 2002 and 2005.
The penalty laid down by law is an unlimited fine but the skippers cannot be jailed.
The court hearings have been going on since August 2010 when the first guilty pleas were heard.
The prosecutions result from a major investigation – Operation Sea Dog – targeting illegal landings.
The court has heard that at Shetland Catch officials of the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency monitored catch sizes on computer screens which had been altered to show lower weights.
The true size of the landings of mackerel and herring were shown in an engineer’s room where the officials did not go.
Amazingly, the court heard, once the “black fish” had been sold there was no attempt to hide the profits from the tax man.
Solicitor advocate Murray Macara QC, for Robert Polson, 48, of Breiwick Road, Lerwick, told the judge: “I must make it clear, my lord, the income Polson has declared is income on both white and black fish.”
Solicitor advocate Liam O’Donnell, for Thomas Eunson, 56, of Westwinds, Symbister, said the purpose behind the quotas was conservation but stocks of herring and mackerel in UK waters were at satisfactory levels.
Also in court today were Allen Anderson, 55, of Solvei, Symbister; John Irvine, 68, of Braeside, Symbister; and Allister Irvine, 63, of Karinya, Symbister.
Lord Turnbull has been hearing how the cheating skippers enjoyed annual earnings into five or six figures, in some cases increased by dividends from shares in the companies which owned the boats they sailed.
The hearings continue.