UNITED KINGDOM-CRIPLLING THE FISHING INDUSTRY.
BRITAIN’S largest privately-owned fish company could lose around £4 million after it was caught red-handed flouting strict EU quota rules.
Newlyn-based W Stevenson and Sons is at the centre of a complex three-day confiscation proceedings at Truro Crown Court, which began yesterday.
The Marine Fisheries Agency brought the legal action under the Proceeds of Crime Act after the firm, its owners and the owners and skippers of six vessels were convicted of falsifying landing documents in order to sell more expensive fish.
In April this year at Exeter Crown Court, the firm pleaded guilty to running the scam between April and September 2002.
W Stevenson and Sons admitted 37 charges of submitting a false sales note to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The court was told that the documents Defra received did not accurately show the amount of each fish species landed at Newlyn harbour and when it was auctioned off.
The deception focused on the landing and selling of high-value species such as cod, hake and angler fish, which are subject to quota limits in order to preserve stocks.
At Truro Crown Court yesterday, prosecuting barrister Martin Edmunds QC told Judge Philip Wassall that in 2002, Marine and Fisheries officers launched an investigation and looked closely at a sample of 20 fishing vessels.
Eight of the sample fishing boats belonged to W Stevenson and Sons. The remainder belonged to boat owners the firm were in partnership with.
Mr Edmunds said that around a quarter of the fish landed in the sample boats were "black" (illegal).
He said: "It is the Crown’s case that there is clear evidence of systematic offending that have given rise to the charges they (W Stevenson and Sons) have been convicted of.
"Between April and September 2002, there was widespread systematic ’blacking’ of fish."
Mr Edmunds said that although the Crown had based its case on findings in 2002, he believed the scam had been in operation for a longer period of time.
He added: "This was a long-term activity. There is no reason why it should have started in 2002 – we assume that it ceased in 2002."
Last year, Newlyn auctioneer Julian Bick was convicted on four counts of aiding and abetting the Stevenson firm in covering up what was going on at Newlyn.
In April this year, 13 owners and skippers of six of the 20 sample boats scrutinised by Marine and Fisheries officers were prosecuted for falsifying documentation and received fines.
The six vessels prosecuted for their part in the matter were the Carol H, the Ajax, Girl Patricia, the Ben Loyal, the Ben My Chree and CKS.
The owners and skippers faced a total of 71 counts between them for submitting false landing declarations.
Collectively, they had to pay fines of around £200,000 or face a jail sentence.
Mr Edmunds then quoted what Judge Wassall had said at the time of the Exeter hearing.
He said: "The scale and manner of the offending draws me to the clear conclusion that these offences were the result of a conspiracy."
Daniel Poulding, who at the time of the 2002 probe was a fisheries officer with Defra and is now a marine fisheries agency officer, said that the information gleaned from the sample boats mirrored the rest of the fishing fleet. He added: "Overall, 24.2 per cent of the catches on the sample vessels were black fish, which I consider to be broadly representative of the situation regarding the whole fleet."
The defence team will argue that the actual figure was 7.2 per cent.
Throughout the proceedings, Elizabeth Stevenson sat at the back of court surrounded by her legal team.
W Stevenson and Sons has been in the fishing industry since 1880 and owns a fleet of 35 vessels which go beam trawling, netting and trawling.
The company is so successful that it supplies every major UK and European market and is also a fish merchant and auctioneer. The hearing continues.