‘Is it not just greed?’ asks black fish case judge as he hears of skippers’ earnings
Skippers involved in a multi-million pound “black fish” scam were greedy criminals, a judge suggested today.
The High Court in Edinburgh is currently hearing pleas for leniency by 17 fishing boat masters caught by Operation Sea Dog.
They face heavy fines next month after admitting landing catches of mackerel and herring which were far in excess of EU quotas.
Today it was the turn of Victor Buschini, 51, of Poulton Le Flyde, Lancashire, and Hamish Slater, 53, of Fraserburgh – masters of the Fraserburgh-registered Enterprise.
Their haul of “black fish” was valued at £7.2 million between January 2002 and March 2005.
The hearing prompted an exchange between judge Lord Turnbull and defence QC Gordon Jackson, for Buschini, after the lawyer revealed his client was earning around £160,000-a-year.
Mr Jackson added: “This law abiding citizen was to do something that was the industry norm.”
The black fish money was going through the books and being taxed. “A unique situation,” said Mr Jackson.
Lord Turnbull said that even after being caught and subjected to quota deductions to make up for their over-fishing, the skippers were still making “a handsome living”.
“What must it have been like when they were under-declaring? Why was there a need to make that much money?” asked Lord Turnbull.
The judge added: “It doesn’t seem that far from other criminal conduct. I am not suggesting it is as morally reprehensible as all that but, when it comes to it, is it not just greed?”
Mr Jackson replied that because of the confiscation of the illegal profits and the cut in quotas and the costs involved, Buschini and the other skippers had come out losers.
“Every penny has been paid back. They shot themselves in the foot,” he said. “They have ended up a lot worse off than had they not done it in the first place.”
The lawyer added: “They have some out of it very badly at the end of the day.”
Solicitor advocate Brian Fitzpatrick, defending Slater, said the skippers had suffered because their catches were restricted at a time when prices were soaring.
Makerel had gone from £400 a tonne in 2005 to an all time high of £1,100 a tonne.
He said there was also resentment in the industry because Iceland and the Faroe Islands – outside EU rules – had massively increased their landings – by 6500 per cent in the case of Iceland.
The EU rules which the skippers had broken were supposed to be a conservation measure, he said. “If everyone stuck to international agreements there would be no threat to fish stocks.”
Mr Fitzpatrick said the combination of his share of the catch and the profits from the company which owned the Enterprise had given Slater earnings of £320,000 in 2010.
All the skippers passing through the High Court in Edinburgh this week landed their illegal catches – valued at more than £40 million – at Lerwick-based Shetland Catch Ltd.
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.
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 first guilty pleas were heard in August 2010. Since then the skippers and their legal teams have been involved in negotiations with prosecutors which have led to a total of £3 million being confiscated as illegal profits.
The level of fines is expected to be announced in Glasgow at the end of next month.