NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

Black fish scam: Law breaking on an industrial scale

This was law breaking on an industrial scale.

The 17 fishermen, including thirteen from Shetland, illegally landed mackerel and herring at the Shetland Catch factory over a three year period.

They offloaded thousands of tonnes of fish, much more than they were allowed under European rules to protect stocks.

The fraud was widespread and sophisticated.

How did they do it?

Image caption The scales at the factory were rigged to underestimate the fish landed

The skippers falsified their logbooks as they landed their catches, lying about how much fish was on board.

Weighing scales at the factory were rigged.

Two computer systems were in place in the processing plant to weigh the fish coming in.

One showing the true weight was hidden in the loft. The other, watched by fisheries officers in the main hall, gave a false reading.

How where they caught?

Fisheries officers along with police raided the factory in 2005 after an investigation into the company's accounts.

Sometimes the illegal catch was worth more than that landed legally.

Image caption One computer showed the real weight while another gave a false reading

Forensic accountants followed the money and discovered tens of millions of pounds which could not be explained.

David Harvie, from the Crown Office, explained: "It's a multi million pound fraud running into the tens of millions in under declaration of catches.

"I think to a large extent it was motivated by profit, there were very large sums of money to be made, and its quite clear by the evidence that's been put before the court that those sums were made by a number of individuals.

"It was a massive investigation involving a large part of an industry to gather that amount of information and analyse it. We're talking about 1,700 hours worth of accountancy work alone, it's been an enormous undertaking".

Cephas Ralph, from Marine Scotland, which replaced the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, added: "This is certainly the biggest investigation that Marine Scotland or the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency has ever been involved in.

"Eighteen months into the investigation it became clear that this was of a scale that required the police to take charge."

Image caption A hidden reader in the loft space displayed the true weight of fish

Det Supt Gordon Gibson, from Grampian Police, said the scheme had been driven by greed.

"I don't think it's a victimless crime at all," he added.

"The quota allocations are set there for a specific purpose and certainly the fish obviously being taken from the sea is a serious matter for Marine Scotland, however these people are no different from people who have perhaps stolen something.

"They made a significant profit out of their criminal conduct."

What now?

Chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, Bertie Armstrong acknowledges that what the skippers did was wrong, but stresses the industry is very different today.

He said: "The wrong doing happened, everyone owned up.

"The situation is completely changed now, the industry is in a different place, the law has changed, the practices of the industry have changed and are independently verified by the Marine Stewardship council certification of stocks that are caught. So the industry is squeaky clean."

As well as the massive fines handed down at the High Court in Glasgow, the 17 skippers have already been forced to pay back nearly £3m in profits they made from the scam.

Shetland Catch, the factory at the centre of the racket is still waiting to hear its fate.

It faces having to pay back the profits it made from the scam, along with a hefty fine.

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