14 Jul 2020

Unreported $800,000 catch sees prominent Chathams fisherman sentenced

5:42 pm on 14 July 2020

A prominent Chatham Islands fisherman has been sentenced to home detention and community service for failing to declare over 11 tonnes of shellfish.

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Photo: Supplied / MPI

The scale of under-reporting was described by the Judge as "unprecedented", and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said they had been unable to find any case where the quantity even comes close.

Kevan Huia Clarke, a former chair of the Chatham Islands Fishery Association, had accumulated the catch over a fifteen month period between 2017 and 2018.

The total catch was then shipped on in fifty separate transactions, with Clarke working with a separate person in flying it over to mainland New Zealand to be sold.

At the sentencing at Wellington District Court, Judge Jan Kelly said the way the operation was handled with intent to underreport and conceal the total catch was pre-meditated and extensive.

Clarke was charged and sentenced on a total of thirty counts, including fourteen counts of obtaining a benefit by selling or dealing with rock lobster and paua; fourteen counts of omitting information in a return; one count of not recording the taking or landing of fish; and one count of making a false or misleading statement in a return.

The unreported catch had a value of more than $800,000. It was estimated the total amount Clarke benefitted from the underreporting of fish was $340,000.

His two fishing vessels, and holding pots, and quota shares, with a combined value of $115,700, have been forfeited.

"Unprecedented" seizure

The un-declared 11 tonnes of fish - 1000 kilograms of which was paua, 3000 kilograms were rock lobster, and the remaining 8000 kilograms were a mix of the two - was described as "unprecendented" by Judge Kelly.

"I've been in fisheries enforcement for over twenty years, and I've never experienced anything of that scale before," said MPI's Director of Compliance, Gary Orr.

MPI had come across the under-reporting during routine patrols around New Zealand.

"We were undertaking a patrol, supported by the Royal New Zealand Navy," said Orr.

"We went out to the Chatham Islands, [and] fishery offices embarked on a naval vessel. They lifted a holding pot off Port Hutt, and found half a tonne of Paua in that pot.

"There should be paper or catch records for that, but there wasn't.

"It was like picking on a loose thread, and the more we pulled the more we uncovered. Subsequently that half a tonne turned into 11 tonnes of unreported fish, which is huge by anyone's standards."

Orr said the sentencing would act as a strong deterrent to others, as a "strong message that those who steal from our fisheries will be held to account."

Clarke's offending is part of a wider investigation into a significant illegal fishing operation, known as Investigation Hutt.

"Frustration" from the community

Kevan Clarke is an established member of the Chatham Islands fishing community.

Three decades ago, he was made Chair of the Islands' Fishery Association, a position he held for ten years.

Clarke's lawyer Alwyn O'Connor, before he was sentenced, said it was a very sad story, and that he appeared before the judge "ashamed, embarassed but very remorseful."

He said he wanted to offer the Chatham Islands community his sincerest apologies.

In submissions to the Court, a number of industry associations and Ngati Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust had outlined their disappointment with Clarke's actions, especially after such efforts had been made by the community to reduce their quota to restore the catchment.

"It's really going to be disappointing for the Chatham Islanders themselves, they take a lot of pride in how they manage the fishery out there," said Orr.

"They contribute to that management by voluntarily not catching their allowable catch, to ensure sustainability. This will really hurt them."