Avocado heists feed sushi black market

Graham Burgess, of Kaikohe, with one of the few bunches of avocados left in his orchard after...
Graeme Burgess lost avocados worth about $100,000 after thieves broke into his Kaikohe orchard last year. Photo: NZME
Avocado thieves are forcing growers to install cameras and electric fences to protect their fruit from a black market that is believed to be supplying sushi shops.

Tauranga growers Liz Pratt and Neville Cooper have caught the latest thieves on film after two separate night break-ins on June 8 and June 12.

Cooper said the sole thief caught on film on June 8 stole avocados worth about $1250.

Two men were caught on film in the June 12 break-in and are believed to have taken even more fruit

The couple believes the thieves are selling the fruit on the black market to sushi shops, where the fruit is used immediately and can't be traced.

"The first time they came they left behind an overnight bag and also an onion bag. Apparently the sushis use a lot of onions and they are giving these guys onion bags," Pratt said.

The fruit does not usually ripen in the Bay of Plenty until September but the thieves are stealing it early.

"The sushi shops smash it all up so it doesn't matter. It's just watery," Cooper said.

He said the thieves were less likely to be supplying vegetable shops or markets where the avocados are sold as whole fruits, usually marked with stickers by the packing houses.

"They are just scumbags," he said. "You spend eight months growing fruit, and two months before it gets ripe they come in and pinch it."

Police said provisional figures recorded 130 avocado thefts in the six months to last December, up from 110 on the same period of 2017.

There were 210 reported thefts in the full year to December, mainly in the Bay of Plenty, Northland and Eastern districts.

Pratt and Cooper had four thefts last year, prompting them to spend about $2500 on security cameras and $1700 on electric fences along all their road frontages.

"Up to then we hadn't had any trouble at all," Cooper said.

"Other growers have had similar experiences. I was just talking to one the other day, he's just bought 10 of them [cameras] to put around his orchard. He's had a lot of break-ins."

He said he had heard that at least one sushi shop owner had been prosecuted for receiving stolen avocados. but that didn't seem to have stopped the practice.

Kaikohe avocado grower Graeme Burgess said last year that thieves stripped his orchard of up to 70 per cent of the fruit, worth about $100,000, also two months before it was ready to harvest.

Three people were arrested in the Bay of Plenty last August on charges of burglary and receiving avocados.

Police Senior Sergeant Alasdair Macmillan said police "have seen a rise in reporting these types of thefts in recent months".

"Avocados are a target for thieves due to availability and price," he said.

"We find that people are increasingly likely to report thefts of this nature, and suspicious activity, where in the past they might not have.

"Police have undertaken extensive work in the community in partnership with Ministry of Primary Industries and rural groups to raise awareness and provide reassurance that any information will be taken seriously by police, no matter how minor.

"Our message to the community is that purchasing or on-selling any stolen avocados only encourages thefts to continue. We encourage people to support their local orchardists and business owners and not purchase stolen goods.

"We also advise growers to contact us immediately if they discover any thefts of their produce. While some may think there is little point reporting these instances, the information is valuable and can assist police to build a comprehensive picture of criminal activity in the area in order to prevent further thefts.

"Orchardists can help prevent thefts by taking action to secure their properties and crops. Measures include installing boundary fences, and CCTV and hidden cameras to catch offenders.

"Such measures can be highly effective, and the information captured through CCTV can be extremely helpful as the more information residents can pass on to police, the more likely it is that we can make an arrest."

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