Treat bent fishermen 'like drug dealers' says shadow minister
October 24 2012 Lewis Smith
An MP has provoked fury in the fishing industry after comparing illegal fishing to drug dealing.
Tom Harris, Labour’s shadow fisheries minister, said crooked fishermen threaten the sustainability of fish stocks and should have to pay back all the proceeds of their crimes, just as drugs dealers should.
His call was made in a letter earlier this year to Frank Mulholland, the Lord Advocate of Scotland, in which he expressed concern that they are being forced to pay back only “a small fraction of the profit made”.
Mr Harris expressed his concerns in part because of the “black fish” scandal in Scotland, mainly the Shetlands Islands, that has seen a series of convictions within the fishing industry for a £63 million scam. He was particularly concerned after learning a company, Shetland Catch, had processed £47m of illegally landed fish but was only ordered to pay back £1.5m.
But he said the problem could also be found in other parts of the UK: “There have been other similar cases in England as well, where an initial assessment of the profit made through criminal activity has resulted in fines or confiscation equivalent to a small fraction of the profit made, resulting in there being little disincentive to undertake such criminal behaviour.”
Mr Harris wants as much of proceeds of fish frauds to be recovered as is possible rather than the authorities chasing just a fraction of it and in his letter to the Lord Advocate he wrote: “This is a principle that should apply to the black fish industry every bit as much as to the illegal drug trade.”
He added: “The so-called “black fish” industry presents a genuine threat to the sustainability of the UK’s fish reserves. While the vast majority of fishermen are honest and law-abiding, there can be no justification for this form of organised crime. The law must be energetically applied in order to protect a natural resource that belongs to all the people of the UK.”
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, however, was incensed at what they interpreted as a slur on fishermen and described it as a “lightweight populist attack on the industry”.
Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the SFF, said the shadow minister should be addressing reform of the Common Fisheries Policy or resolving the “mackerel war” rather than harking back to an issue that was at least seven years old.
He said the MP had ignored the problems facing the fishing industry and had instead chosen to launch an attack “demanding that fishermen be treated like drug dealers”.
Mr Armstrong went so far as to defend the law-abiding backgrounds of the skippers involved in the Scottish scam to illegally conceal catches of fish, pointing out that apart from the multi-million pound fraud they had led blameless lives.
In his tirade against Mr Harris he said: “I do not wish to defend in any way illegal behaviour but we have a justice system, which includes proceeds of crime legislation, to deal with such matters.
“Each defendant had already forfeited the quota caught illegally; had additionally been subjected to a large fine and also finally suffered under the Proceeds of Crime legislation. But all this is now history.
“Mr Harris was actually briefed a week ago on the main problems across the whole fishing industry. He has completely ignored that, demanding instead that fishermen be treated like drug dealers. He rails against that system in not doing the equivalent of placing fishermen’s heads on a spike, but fails utterly to comprehend what part the industry plays in local communities.
“He has utterly failed to understand the current problems facing the fishing industry of the UK.”
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