Three Camperdown men have been jailed after Victoria’s biggest illegal fishing sting.
Warrnambool Magistrates Court was told that Camperdown fish and chip shop operators, who caught, processed and sold illegally caught shark, were able to pay off a $200,000 boat named Flaked Out in two years.
Mustafa Meric, 38, of Barkly Street, and Burhan Tolga Meric, 40 of Hopetoun Street, pleaded guilty in the Warrnambool Magistrates Court to a range of fisheries offences relating to taking fish valued at $50,000 on 34 fishing trips.
They also admitted to firearm offences after two sawn off .22 guns and ammunition were found, one at the shop and the other on the boat.
They were each jailed for three months, convicted and fined $9500 and their boat, now valued at $160,000, was confiscated.
Deckhand Wayne Robert McLean, 49 of Talbot Street, Camperdown, was jailed for two months and fined $7500 after he went on 31 trips.
The three were also banned from fishing for 10 years.
They have all appealed against the severity of their jail sentences.
Rodney Paul Light, 39, of Princes Highway, Weerite, went on six trips and he was fined $6000 and banned from fishing for 12 months.
Magistrate Franz Holzer said the offences were motivated by self-interest and greed.
He said a 12-minute video of the illegal activities was compelling.
Mr Holzer said fish were a fragile natural resource, with a limited life unless properly and responsibly managed through licensing and as fish and chip shop operators the Merics knew that more than anyone.
He said the offending was motivated by money and the Merics sidestepped statutory and licensing obligations in making 36 trips between August 2016 and January last year in Victorian and New South Wales waters.
Fisheries prosecutor John Livitsanos said it was Victoria’s largest ever fisheries investigation, involving hundreds of hours of surveillance footage.
“It’s by far the biggest take-for-sale case ever in Victoria,” he said.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in terms of size, duration, quantity and objective gravity.
“You have the owners of a fish and chip shop illegally taking and processing fish for financial gain.”
Mr Livitsanos said the operation involved the taking of hundreds of fish, mainly shark, over 16 months.
He said the crimes undermined the fishing industry, put at risk a protected resource and the Merics were then involved in processing the fish for sale.
The prosecutor said the ability to detect such offences was extremely difficult.
Mr Livitsanos said that up to more than six sharks were caught on fishing trips, which were then reduced to hundreds of portions for sale at $6 each.
He said that during the operation the fish were often cleaned at sea and then hidden on the boat in the anchor well, which were not found during fisheries inspections.
The fish were sometimes left on the boat for days before being taken into the shop and the illegal operation continued even after numerous warnings from fisheries officers.
Undercover officers bought fish from the shop a number of times, once 40 fillets for about $150.
Mustafa Meric was described as the principal offender, McLean was the deck hand while Burhan Meric sold the fish through the shop he managed.
Mustafa Meric pleaded guilty to five rolled up charges after being originally charged with 80 offences.
The main charges were that between August 8, 2016, and January 5, 2018, Meric, at or near Warrnambool, and other places in Victoria and New South Wales, did on 34 occasions take and sell shark and other fin fish for sale when not authorised to do so.
Burhan Meric, who managed the fish and chip shop, pleaded guilty to selling the fish.
McLean went out on 31 fishing trips and Light six times.
Such was the extent of the operations that Mustafa Meric considered buying a commercial fishing licence but said they were not for sale.
The maximum penalty for the rolled up charge was a fine of just over $16,000 and/or a six-month jail term.
Victorian Fisheries Authority director of education and enforcement Ian Parks said it was a great result after a tireless 16-month investigation by fisheries officers.
“This is very serious offending that threatens the commercial industry, creates food safety risk for seafood consumers and has the potential to impact on the sustainability of the resource,” he said.
“Also sends a message that the VFA takes this type of offending seriously and will investigate it and prosecute it to the fullest extent.
“Fisheries officers and investigators will continue to detect, disrupt and dismantle organised illegal fishing activity as a priority.
“We are dedicated to exploring all avenues to bring offenders to justice and protect Victoria's fisheries resources for sustainable and legitimate utilisation,” he said.
Anyone who sees or suspects illegal fishing is urged to call the 24-hour reporting line 13FISH (133474), anytime.