Market for illegal fish broken up

Ministry of Fisheries officers and police have broken up a Southland black market in blue cod, rock lobster and oysters.

Seven residential properties in Bluff and Invercargill were raided early yesterday at the end of a six-month surveillance operation focused on the activities of two commercial fishermen and their associates.

Ministry of Fisheries district compliance manager Reece Murphy told the Otago Daily Times the two fishermen each operated their own Bluff-based commercial boat. They had "catch entitlement" but did not own quota.

The issue was over how they disposed of their "recreational feed" - the fish fishermen can land for their own consumption but cannot legally sell.

Mr Murphy said the "feed" entitlement - equivalent to the recreational limit - is 30 cod per day, six lobsters and 50 oysters per fisherman, and crew, and must be recorded.

"In isolation, it might be small quantities, but over a period of time that really does mount up to quite a significant quantity of fish."

Mr Murphy said the fish were allegedly supplied to numerous associates who then sold them to the wider community.

"It's the black market component of this activity that's really concerning us most."

Most of the sales being investigated occurred in Bluff, Invercargill and surrounding districts. Some were for cash and some were for barter. Mr Murphy would not specify what goods were bartered.

Asked if a leg of lamb or half a lamb might be involved, Mr Murphy said: "You might not be far off the mark, but I just won't go into those details at this stage."

The search of houses turned up "no great quantities of fish", a result Mr Murphy said was expected because "a lot of this alleged offending has occurred over a period of months".

The evidence would be assessed over the next few days before decisions were made on what charges would be laid.

Knowingly contravening the Fisheries Act can mean up to five years' jail and a fine of up to $250,000. Boats and equipment can also be forfeited.

Mr Murphy said the price being charged for the fish varied from customer to customer.

"But you will note that they are high-value species; they are top-of-the-range species which are highly sought after in the wider community.

"Unfortunately, there seems to be a ready market for them and I guess that's the disappointing aspect of this investigation. They seemed to have no difficulty disposing of it to willing buyers."

Mr Murphy said people who bought illegal fish were potentially undermining the quota system "and they are placing the future sustainability of our fish stocks in jeopardy".

"It may well seem cheap at the time but it does come at a cost."

New Zealand had "quite generous" recreational entitlements to allow people to catch their own and this could be given to family and friends, Mr Murphy said.



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