|WA black market sting uncovers fishy business|
|Tuesday, 17 April 2012 12:06|
Crayfish might be a delicacy but two Fisheries Department surveillance operations have resulted in more than $100,000 of fines and court costs for WA fishers found to be obtaining seafood by illegal means.
Twin sting operations into the black market sales of valuable
scale fish and rock lobster have nabbed more than a dozen people in the
WA restaurant and seafood trade and already resulted in more than
$100,000 in fines and court costs.
Operation Dorado (concentrating on fish) and Operation Cosmos (rock lobster) have run during the past three years and involved a string of raids by Department of Fisheries officers.
The Department of Fisheries believes the flagrant offending is a result of restaurant owners looking to increase profit margins and unscrupulous fishers looking for a quick buck in an industry that now has stricter catch limits.
Last month, as part of Dorado, the co-manager of a Bunbury restaurant pleaded guilty and was fined more than $20,000 in the Bunbury Magistrates Court for buying fish and abalone from a person who did not have a commercial fishing licence.
China City Garden Restaurant chef and co-manager Kon Sin Wong, 48, was seen at the back of the restaurant buying more than 14kg of dhufish and pink snapper fillets in April 2010.
He paid $220 – far less than the wholesale market price – and later that month paid a further $600 for 10kg of abalone, also from a fisher who did not have a commercial licence.
Fisheries and Marine Officers subsequently inspected the restaurant and charged Wong.
Wong's lawyer told the court his client had used the fish for personal consumption and as gifts.
Wong has since been ordered to pay more than $24,000 in fines and court costs.
Gavin Hewitt, the former owner/manager of Hooks Sea and Salad Bar in Geraldton was also recently sentenced for buying demersal (bottom-feeding) fish fillets on two occasions from an unlicensed fisher during a controlled operation.
Mr Hewitt admitted to illegally buying 17 kilograms of fillets of species including pink snapper, baldchin groper and dhufish, and on another occasion, 19kg of baldchin groper fillets for his fish and chip shop.
He was fined more than $14,000 in the Geraldton Magistrates Court on January 24.
Dorado, which has focussed on illegal trading of high-value demersal finfish (such as dhufish), also nabbed former Fremantle restaurant manager Paul Anthony Wallen and former Merriwa seafood retail owner Trinh Ngoc Thanh.
Wallen, 58, of Jandakot, pleaded guilty to illegally purchasing demersal scale fish for the Essex St Restaurant on two separate occasions and was fined more than $23,500 by the Fremantle Magistrates Court in September 2010.
Thanh, 41, of Morley, former owner of Simply Seafoods, admitted to illegally purchasing high value demersal scale fish on two separate occasions and being found in possession of other fish products on his premises which he could not legitimately account for.
He was fined more than $6000 by the Joondalup Magistrate's Court in November of the same year.
Chee Kong Cheong was also successfully prosecuted as the manager and director of the company responsible for the St Clair Continental Deli in Port Kennedy, where fisheries officers uncovered several questionable practices.
The 46-year-old Parkwood man was most recently fined about $2200 for illegally buying demersal scale fish on two separate occasions and his company, Nathan & Hayley Pty Ltd , was also slugged $500 for falsely advertising dhufish for sale when in fact they sold fish of a lesser quality in its place.
Meanwhile Operation Cosmos – focussed on illegal trade of western rock lobsters – incorporated raids on homes in Cervantes and Coogee in 2010, which led to 10 individuals being charged with 53 fisheries offences.
The alleged offences included excess possession of rock lobsters, use of excess lobster pots, interference with other fishers' rock lobster pots, dealing in recreationally caught lobster and selling them for commercial gain.
The raids were carried out following a month of surveillance activities and involved the seizure of items relating to the black market trade of lobster, including three vehicles, one vessel, six lobster pots, 64 whole rock lobsters, 63 rock lobster tails, cooking equipment and a quantity of cash.
The department's efforts to crack down on illegal lobster sales continue, with the most recent conviction being Sin Chun Hung – also known as Jacky - who pleaded guilty to four charges of dealing in illegal seafood on February 28 this year.
On three occasions he bought fresh and frozen rock lobster in quantities up to 58kg at a private home in Karawara from a person he knew was not a licensed commercial fisher, paying significantly less than the market wholesale price, the court heard.
On another occasion he bought about 20kg of abalone from a person he knew was not a licensed commercial fisher at the back of an Applecross café.
He said he bought the rock lobster and abalone to distribute among his friends.
He is due to face sentencing on April 4.
Other prosecutions include:
Five other people are yet to face court as a result of Operation Comos, over allegations they illegally caught and/or bought rock lobster.
Department of Fisheries Compliance and Regional Support Manager Phil Shaw said commercial fishing was carefully managed by the department to ensure the state's fish species were sustainably harvested.
"Buying seafood illegally not only jeopardises the livelihoods of legitimately licensed fishers, but also threatens the sustainability of the fishery. We're determined to stop this kind of illegal activity," he said.
Restaurants and seafood businesses that purchased illegal seafood were also placing their customers' health at risk, along with the reputation of their business, he said.
He said his officers undertook surveillance of selected fish outlets, where it was suspected that the owners were keener to maintain or increase profit margins by buying seafood cheaper outside the commercial management arrangements across the state from Kalbarri to Augusta.
"Given the recent effort restrictions for commercial fishing on the west coast and the high prices for prime fish such as dhufish and snapper it is likely that people will be tempted from time to time to deal in fish illegally," he said.
"This is often opportunistic but we suspect there are also some who will operate on the black market on a regular basis."
He said the operation came into effect after the introduction of strict catch limits across the commercial and recreational scale fish industry.
"These management arrangements were aimed at reducing the catch in both sectors by 50 per cent to ensure the sustainability of the resource," he said.
"Anyone dealing in fish in a commercial capacity outside of these management arrangements undermines these restrictions and can impact on the fishery.
"The operation was both targeted and random. The premises targeted were based on information and intelligence data received by the department.
"Fisheries officers in the field gather intelligence all the time about suspicious activities, such as people fishing every day when they can't eat all that fish every day. People also report to our fish watch service when they suspect a person is catching fish or buying fish illegally."
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