Page last updated at 19:59 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 20:59 UK

Who's wrong - fishermen or the system?

By Jeremy Cooke
BBC News

Cod
There is a battle to preserve UK fish stocks, such as cod

A British fishing firm has been ordered to hand over more than £700,000 by a judge after cheating on quotas by lying about the type of fish it had caught.

The case centred on six vessels belonging to W Stevenson and Son, based in the Cornish port of Newlyn, which deliberately over-fished protected fish stocks for financial gain.

The scam involved landing high-quality, high-value fish such as cod and hake, but suggesting in the paperwork they were non-quota species such as ling, halibut and bass.

It is too soon to calculate the long-term impact the £776,000 punishment will have on the firm - although it says it will survive.

Even for a company with a substantial annual turnover, raising that kind of cash may not be easy.

Still, the company's boss had reason to look relieved when she left Exeter Crown Court on Wednesday.

Elizabeth Stevenson knew at one point the court was asked to consider confiscation to the tune of some £4m.

Fishermen have amassed what little they have through work in the most harsh of conditions
Online petition urging a halt to punishing fishermen

Speaking to reporters after the case ended she denied the offences, which happened in 2002, were anything to do with greed.

"At the time this was pure financial necessity," she said.

"It was to keep people employed, keep boats at sea and keep the business and Newlyn going."

But for the Marine & Fisheries Agency this case was about justice - and sending a clear message to the industry that cheating on quotas will not be tolerated.

It brought the case to court and used Proceeds of Crime (POC) legislation - usually used to seize the assets of big-time drug dealers and gangsters - to exact the maximum financial punishment.

The agency sees itself as being in the front line in a battle to preserve UK fish stocks.

It is clearly hoping the Newlyn case, and others like it, will act as a deterrent to any trawler owner or skipper tempted to land and sell fish which have been caught outside the quota system set by the European Union.

'Sledgehammer'

But for some inside the industry there is outrage that fishermen are being punished for breaking the rules of what, for many, is a discredited system.

Fishing quotas are supposed to protect the marine eco-system for generations to come.

But they have also been inadvertently responsible for the practice of "discards" which means, for instance, an estimated 40-60% of fish caught by trawlers in the North Sea is thrown back into the water, dead.

Elizabeth Stevenson
Elizabeth Stevenson said the scam was down to "financial necessity".

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition on the 10 Downing Street website calling for an end to the use of POC legislation to punish fishermen.

Part of the petition reads: "The act is on the statute to strip assets from criminals who have amassed their wealth from criminal acts.

"Fishermen have amassed what little they have through work in the most harsh of conditions."

Most people in Newlyn seem to accept the company must be punished for its actions.

But along the harbour side there are also some complaints the authorities are "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut".

There is also recognition that a financial punishment running into millions could have threatened the future of one of this fishing port's major employers.

Discards 'immoral'

It is difficult to know how widespread is the kind of deception used by W Stevenson.

But over the years the Marine and Fisheries Agency has brought several such cases before the courts.

They have led to punishments running into millions of pounds and in some cases terms in jail for those convicted, who cannot or will not make the payments ordered by the court.

The two sides could hardly be more polarised.

But, it seems, there is some common ground on which almost everyone can agree - the current quota system needs radical reform.

The European Fisheries Commissioner has called discards "immoral".

As long as the "system" requires skippers to dump huge amounts of dead fish back into the sea, it seems likely that some will be tempted to break the rules and land their catches illegally.



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SEE ALSO
Firm admits 141K fish quota scam
13 Apr 07 |  Cornwall

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