It was a highly sophisticated operation that involved not just the skippers of Shetland and north east pelagic trawlers, but the vessel’s agents and the fish factory itself.
Peterhead ran its own scams at the Fresh Catch factory and the now defunct Alexander Buchan factory, which were based on similar, well established methods that involved many people.
Underground pipes, secret weighing scales and fake computer read outs allowed 170,000 tonnes of fish worth around £63 million to be landed and sold outside of the European quota system from the three premises.
Fisheries officers had long suspected that over quota fish were being landed illegally at some of Scotland’s eight pelagic fish factories.
However it was only when they hired financial experts KPMG to examine the companies’ accounts and compare them to the notified landings that they put two and two together.
After studying the figures from 1 January 2002 to 28 March 2004, they found that Shetland Catch – Scotland’s largest fish factory – and Fresh Catch could not justify their earnings from the landings they had declared.
On 27 September 2005 fisheries officers backed up by police searched the two factories under warrant. The following May they raided Alexander Buchan’s premises after another alert from KPMG.
There followed a massive investigation dubbed Operation Trawler, which involved a basic team of 24 police officers from based in Inverness, Aberdeen and Lothian and Borders, along with members of the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency.
They were joined by four British Sea Fishery Officers all working full time on this case, pulling in extra support as required.
Officers of the court were also involved, as were the country’s electronic scanning and money laundering units.
Suspects were interviewed for at least a whole day, and often substantially longer. A total of 20,000 productions were gathered as evidence for the eventual court case, with enquiries stretching the length and breadth of the UK and as far afield as Norway.
What the investigators found at Shetland Catch was a set of rigged scales that could be manipulated to give out false readings.
A reduced reading was displayed on a computer screen visible to fisheries officers when they inspected the premises, while a correct reading was displayed on a computer in the factory loft.
A further screen displaying the correct reading was based in an engineer’s workshop well away from the main building. Only two people had access to this workshop.
Other systems were used in Peterhead where Fresh Catch had a method of diverting fish through pipes to avoid weighing scales altogether, while Alexander Buchan had a second conveyor belt that took the undeclared fish.
The investigation discovered that the skippers and the factories would contact each other by phone while the boat was still at sea, deciding between them how much of the catch would be declared and agree a price. The skipper would then record the agreed “official” figure in his log book.
This lower figure would be backed up when the skipper submitted his landing declaration within 48 hours of coming ashore, and when the factory issued a sales note.
The third element in the network were the fishing agents, including Lerwick’s LHD Ltd, when they invoiced the factory for the fish.
The agents had three methods of invoicing. Firstly they simply submitted two invoices, one matching the declared landing and the second correct invoice being marked secret.
This was replaced by inflating the price per tonne so the smaller amount of fish appeared on the invoice, but the total value of the actual catch was covered.
The third method involved what was called the “Japanese bonus”, ostensibly to pay for good quality fish, when in fact it was to disguise the true size of the landing.
Shetland Catch has admitted its involvement in illegal landings between 1 January 2002 and 19 March 2005, and is expected to be sentenced next month.
Six more Scottish skippers await sentences for landing fish at Shetland Catch and the two other factories, as does Fresh Catch for their involvement. A further four north east skippers are facing prosecution for similar offences, who cannot be named for legal reasons.