Scottish fishermen have pleaded guilty to a long-established plot to sidestep landing quotas.
More than £37m worth of herring and mackerel were illegally caught between 2002 and 2005 in the waters around Shetland.
Six trawler skippers from the island pleaded guilty at Edinburgh’s high court on Monday. They were convicted of falsifying records in an attempt to avoid the declaration of £15.25m worth of catches during the three-year period.
In all 14 fishermen have admitted bringing in illegal mackerel and herring to Shetland’s main port of Lerwick in a practice referred to as ‘black landings’.
The case is the biggest ever of its kind in Britain and involved a huge and often complex investigation by the police and fisheries officials, leading in all to three court cases this year.
Between them the skippers have admitted to 524 undeclared ‘black’ landings, a total of £37,212,271 worth of fish during 2002 and 2005.
Sentences are expected to be handed down to the fishermen next year. They are also likely to suffer big fines with prosecutors having the power to seize assets and money and invoke confiscation orders.
One of Lerwick’s best known fish processing companies, Shetland Catch Ltd., was also found guilty of helping the 14 skippers land their illegal catches.
Prosecutors in Edinburgh expect to bring more related cases to court in 2011.
“The ramifications of overfishing on such a scale are extremely serious, due to the potentially devastating impact for the marine environment and the fishing industry itself,” said Scott Pattison, director of operations at the Crown Office.
He also said that in all the cases so far “there was a false declaration of the quantity of fish landed. This was the principal method of deception used by the skipper accused throughout the relevant period.”
Black landings have by and large died out in Scotland after tighter controls and voluntary conservation plans.