A SPECIAL flying squad of fisheries officers have seized the vehicle of a commercial fisherman after he was allegedly found with 40 Eastern rock lobsters in Mayfield last week.
The sting operation involving covert surveillance, known as ‘Operation Antennae’, tracked the movements of two Hunter men over several weeks.
It ended when a man was apprehended at Mayfield last Friday.
Fisheries officers seized a refrigerated vehicle and 40 of the valuable lobsters that can sell for more than $120 per kilogram.
Department of Primary Industries director of fisheries compliance, Patrick Tully, said officers from the Statewide Operations and Investigations Group teamed with Hunter and Port Stephens staff in the operation designed to stamp out the illegal trade of lobsters.
“DPI Fisheries will allege the commercial fisherman took the lobsters without being appropriately endorsed to do so,” he said.
“The refrigerated vehicle driven by a second man was intercepted by fisheries officers when it stopped at a fast food restaurant at Mayfield.
“Thirty four cooked lobsters and six uncooked lobsters were found and seized by fisheries officers.”
DPI is investigating charging the men with trafficking in a commercial quantity of an indictable species, exceeding the limit of lobsters and being in possession of oversized lobsters.
The state’s lobster industry is worth about $11.5 million annually.
Mr Tully said the industry was highly regulated with strict limits on commercial catches allowed by approved fishers.
“Individual lobsters must be tagged with numbered tags provided by DPI if legally taken for sale,” he said.
“These offences include fines of up to $88,000 and terms of imprisonment of up to 10 years on conviction.
“Additional monetary penalties of up to 10 times the market value of the fish can apply to trafficking fish offences and exceeding possession limit offences.”
The seized vehicle used to transport the lobsters could be forfeited to the government if the offences are proven.
Strict controls were introduced on the fishing of Eastern rock lobster in the early 1990s following concerns about dwindling stock.
According to a report by fisheries in 2012, the population has experienced a “steady recovery” since.
Eastern rock lobsters are the largest rock lobsters in the world and can weigh in excess of seven kilograms.They have a combined bag limit in NSW of two.
The Hunter operation comes just weeks after a raid code named ‘Operation Talon’ resulted in the largest fines in NSW for offences involving lobsters in December 2017.
A group of Illawarra businessmen involved in the illegal overfishing of Eastern rock lobster off the Illawarra coast were penalised more than $2 million.
In a judgment handed down at Sutherland Local Court in December, magistrate David Williams imposed fines of $836,000, awarded legal costs of $492,000 and stripped a fishing company at the centre of the scam of almost $800,000 worth of shares in the state lobster management scheme.
A former head angler for a south coast fishing company had already been fined $76,000 and jailed for two years for playing the central role in the major commercial fishing scam that saw him illegally catch and on-sell 640 kilograms of lobster between February 2013 and April 2014.
Court documents reveal NSW Fisheries recorded the fisherman under-tagging (or failing to tag) his catch on multiple occasions over a 14-month period in a bid to skirt the legal quota for lobster under NSW law.
His associates, who benefited from the scheme, including a seafood restaurant, were penalised more than $2 million.
Evidence relied upon in the case included hours of covert surveillance carried out by fisheries officers, GPS boat movement data, daily catch log sheets, trap records, tax invoice books, consignment records and financial records.
Mr Tully praised the efforts of officers in the latest Hunter operation.
“The efforts of fisheries officers for their hard work and expertise in the difficult task of unearthing illegal fishing which threatens legitimate markets, economic development and social benefits to NSW cannot be underestimated,” he said.
Anyone with information on suspected illegal fishing activity should call Fisher Watch on 1800 043 536 or report it online at www.dpi.nsw.gov.au.