In the mid-2000s suspicions were raised that widespread illegal fishing was taking place throughout the Scottish pelagic fleet. It was alleged that huge amounts of ‘black fish’ were being landed. Black fish are any fish which are caught, retained and sold illegally, usually because a vessel has caught its full quota of a particular species but keeps on fishing and catching it. This led the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency (SFPO) to begin to investigate (1). Early findings suggested that the amount of fish being landed illegally – and the amount of money rogue skippers were making – was much higher than initial estimates indicated. The Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, therefore, called in Grampian Police for assistance. A joint full-scale investigation, codenamed Operation Trawler, was launched (1).
Large Scale Operation
Suspicion immediately fell on two companies, Fresh Catch in Peterhead and Shetland Catch in Lerwick, due to their finances. Both of these companies processed fish that was caught by the pelagic fleet, but they were paying tax on earnings that far exceeded the amount of money they could have made by catching their legitimate quota of fish (2). A third company, Alexander Buchan Limited, was under suspicion for alleged irregularities in the way they processed fish. Once the investigation was underway accountants soon discovered that Fresh Catch and Shetland Catch both earned millions of pounds which could not be accounted for through legitimate fishing activity (3), and huge amounts of black fish had been landed at both factories. Alexander Buchan also had questions to answer about fish landed there.
Further investigation confirmed that all three companies had been carrying out black fish fraud on an industrial scale. The factory owners worked with skippers who took their boats out to sea to fish for mackerel and herring. The skippers would falsify their logbooks to conceal the real amount of fish they were catching. On returning to port they would offload their catch at the Shetland Catch factory. Here the fish would be weighed on rigged scales. One computer screen would show the reduced weight of catches to fisheries officers and independent verifiers, while a separate computer system which was hidden on the upper floors of the building would record the true amount of fish that had been caught (2). A similar system was in place in the Fresh Catch factory (2), which also had a system of secret underground pipes which were used to covertly pump fish into the building (1). The third company involved in the scandal, Alexander Buchan Limited, used a different system which added an extra conveyor belt to their processing facilities. This allowed up to 70 per cent of their catches to go undeclared (2).
Following the investigation the huge scale of the Scottish black fish operation became apparent. Hundreds of illegal landings of black fish had been made throughout the 2000s. Shetland Catch had landed £47.5m of illegal fish, Fresh Catch £10.5m and Alexander Buchan Limited had taken ashore £4.8m. This had made the skippers and factory owners millions of pounds in illegal earnings.
The Court Case, Fines and Quota Reductions
When the case came to the High Court in Glasgow Lord Justice Turnbull found the seventeen skippers involved guilty. He said they had been involved in a “cynical and sophisticated” scheme which had brought “embarrassment and shame” to them and their families. He went on to say:
“The motivation was purely financial. Those who were already making a good living saw this as a way more income could be generated and were prepared to participate in deliberate lies and falsehoods” (5).
He added that the operation “depended entirely on the willingness of fish processing companies to install systems to disguise the actual landings figures” and called this “the great deception” (4) .
In total twenty-three men were convicted for their part in the operation, receiving fines and confiscation orders (5). The fines took two forms: fines for the initial offences and confiscation orders which were additional fines designed to take away wealth and assets which had been gained through illegal activity. The fines ranged from £3,000 to £80,000, and the confiscation orders were for sums as high as £425,000, highlighting how much the skippers and processing companies had made from the illegal operation. As well as these fines and confiscation orders the skippers were given the additional punishment of all of their future quotas of fish they can catch being reduced by the EU (4) . It emerged during the court case that many of the men involved in the scandal had spent the money they made through the scam on second homes in Spain and France. Others had bought luxury cars and property for members of their families (7) .
Some believe the Shetland fishermen were treated harshly. Writing in The Shetland Times in March 2012 John Robertson stated that raids had taken place on the Irish pelagic fleet before the Scottish black fish scandal was uncovered. In Ireland, prosecutions were expected but in the end, the only punishment was a reduction in quotas (6), while Leslie Tait, Chairman of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association pointed out that the reduction in the Shetland fleet’s quota would cost them a lot more money than they gained from their illegal activity (6). Journalist Christopher Brooker, writing in the Telegraph, criticised the use of confiscation orders against fishermen, claiming they are disproportionate and the legislation is designed to take money from drug dealers, gangsters and major criminals (8) Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Association stressed that the Scottish fishing industry had been reformed following the black fish scandal and was now “squeaky clean” (3).
While the Scottish Black Fish Scandal was a high-profile example of this type of crime being uncovered, illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing remains widespread across the world. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimated that 26 million tons of fish are caught illegally on a global basis and calls IUU fishing “one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems” (9).
- Skippers and Firm Fined Almost £1m for Part in £63m ‘Black Fish’ Scam – BBC News website.
- Brown, C. Fish Fraud: Black Fish Skippers are Finally Sunk by Their Own Greed – The Scotsman, 25/2/2012.
- Black Fish Scam: Law Breaking on an Industrial Scale – BBC News website.
- Thirteen Shetland Fishermen Fined £470,000 for ‘Cynical and Sophisticated’ Black Fish Scheme – The Shetland Times, 24/2/2012.
- £47.5 Shetland Black Fish Scam Details Revealed – BBC News website.
- John Robertson, Black Fish was Rife in Industry Across Scotland for Decades says Convicted Fisherman – The Shetland Times, 2/3,2012.
- ‘Black Fish’ Skippers Fined Over £47m Fishing Scam in Shetland – The Daily Record, 24/2/2012.
- Brooker, C. Now We Treat Our Fishermen Like Drug Dealers – The Telegraph, 4/4/2009.
- Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, FAO website.