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The end of a fishy marathon

Friday 1 March 2019

We find them guilty too.
That was the verdict from the seafood industry after the sentencing of Hawke’s Bay Seafoods, its related companies, directors and manager.

Antonino (Nino), Giancarlo (Joe) and Marcus D’Esposito had pleaded guilty at the end of 2017 to 85 charges in relation to 27 tonnes of unreported bluenose exported to Australia between the end of 2012 and mid-2014.

They were convicted last year, when four fishing vessels were ordered forfeit to the Crown.

The saga finally played out in Wellington District Court on Monday when Hawke’s Bay Seafoods and related companies were fined $1,086,673 under a complicated formula adopted by Judge Bill Hastings.

He also ordered the companies to pay $418,500 in redemption fees for return of the four vessels.

When deemed values were added for the unreported bluenose, the total payable came to about $1.7 million, the largest fine imposed in a domestic fisheries case.

Substantial undisclosed legal fees would likely have pushed the total cost well over $2 million.

This gave the company and its principals the dubious distinction of beating a previous record fine of $989,000 they incurred in 1997 for making false statements in quota reports and possessing fish illegally when operating out of Petone in Wellington.

They then moved to Napier and set up Hawke’s Bay Seafoods.

In a rare light moment in a case that took five years of investigation and litigation, fish of the chocolate kind were handed out to the lawyers involved before the sentencing, courtesy of the judge.

That was his way of saying thank you for their advocacy.

“This feels to me like the end of the marathon,” Judge Hastings said.

Finally, the boil had been lanced.

Seafood NZ condemned the behaviour, supported the MPI prosecution and welcomed the outcome.

“There was no place in the industry for those who flout the system,” a sworn affidavit to the court signed by chief executive Tim Pankhurst said.

“We have a very clear code of conduct that says illegal behaviour will not be tolerated.

“This is theft – both from the people of New Zealand and the quota holders.

“Further, the bluenose fishery this theft has been committed in has been in decline and the unrecorded catch left a big gap in attempts to accurately assess the biomass of the fishery.

“As an industry, we are collectively committed to transparency and doing the right thing.

“The actions by Hawke’s Bay Seafoods undermine our efforts to be responsible guardians of the resource.”

Ministry for Primary Industries fishing compliance manager Steve Ham said the case involved sustained offending over a number of years.

“The illegal activity was premeditated and showed a blatant disregard for the quota management system,” he said.

The company and its directors remained unrepentant to the last.

“It’s regrettable we did not have the resources to continue with our defence,” a company spokesman said.

“However, we can now put the last four years behind us and move forward.”

Ngati Kahungunu, whose quota of mixed species of around 1000 tonnes is fished into Hawke’s Bay Seafoods, have stated their intention to purchase the company, to be renamed Takitimu Seafoods.

That will ensure continued access to fresh seafood, secure the jobs of 250 staff and overcome the bad smell that has hung around the Bay for too long.

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