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On one side of the court room, in two lines, sat the fourteen defendants. Facing them on the opposite side were the members of the public. In the middle were the clerks, the barristers, solicitors, the journalists and Elizabeth Stevenson representing the firm W.S Stevenson & Sons. The firm’s sentencing had been delayed to a later date. The defendants to be sentenced were the ‘masters and owners’ of six fishing vessels based in Newlyn and one auctioneer at the Newlyn Fish Market employed by W.S. Stevenson and Son. All were charged with offences relating to the landing of fish. The charges related to the period April to September 2002 during which all vessels were operating as gill-netters and papers for the landing of fish were allegedly falsified so that the fish would not count against the quotas available to the vessels. The maximum value of fish on a single landing was £8,665 and the average on specific counts was just under £3000 worth of fish per landing. The total value of fish at auction was £128,127. The regulatory system depends on Masters reporting their catches on log sheets and landing declarations; however spot checks are also carried out by Defra and the Navy. In this case the Masters and Owners of the six vessels involved were convicted of ‘failure to submit landing declarations’ 52. The ‘Prosecution Opening Note’ Sentencing Hearing 5th January 2009, before HHJ Wassall in the Crown Court at Truro, Cornwall.
auctioneer was convicted of ‘aiding and abetting W.S. Stevenson and Son’ who in turn had been convicted of falsifying sales notes for the sale of the falsely declared fish through their market. An example of these offences provided by the prosecution is as follows; ‘on the vessels log sheet and landing declaration a catch of hake would be recorded as a non-quota species such as turbot. This allowed hake in excess of quota to be landed and sold through the Newlyn Fish Auction for profit without detection’. Such fish is commonly known as ‘black fish’. The prosecution regarded these offences as a ‘wholesale and systematic operation to breach the limits. These were deliberate and well-organised deceptions. Paperwork was systematically falsified to hide the landing and sales of fish in excess of quota and thus to profit commercially from overfishing’.
The defendants had pleaded ‘not guilty’ up until April 2007; one of them informed me that they had been forced to change their plea when new ‘hear-say’ evidence was submitted that made their case indefensible. However they continued to ask for leniency on the grounds that they were merely trying to make a living in the context of a depressed industry and tight quota regulations. Furthermore, operating in a ‘mixed fishery’, they claim they were unable to target particular species and that any over-quota species would have had to have been discarded had it not been landed (thrown back into the sea dead). The judge dismissed these pleas.
Focusing in particular on the discard issue as the fishermen had themselves done in defence; he found the excuse to be unacceptable. Even if, as the fishermen claim, they were unable to target non-quota species, the charges relate to a period at the beginning of the annual allocation period (the financial year) and therefore they would have had sufficient quota available to them to provide for any quota fish landed 53. Under share-fishing arrangements, vessel Masters (and their crew) and vessel Owners share profits. Amongst the 16 defendants were several fishing families including some pensioners amongst the Owners. The statute provides that where Masters are guilty of an offence, Owners are also guilty. The prosecution pointed out that this was no mere technicality but ‘reflects their obligations to control There is some dispute over this argument. The Cornish Fish Producers’ Cooperative (CFPO) whose responsibility it is to allocate quota to its members is reported as stating that virtually no more quota was available in 2002. (‘How Defra crushed British fishermen’ by Christopher Booker. Telegraph 17 January 2009) Masters acting for them AND the fact that the Owners will be profiting directly from their offending’ 54. The judge admitted to some difficulty in balancing the seriousness of the crimes against the means of the defendants to pay fines. The statute provides that fines must not cripple a person or prevent them from maintaining their livelihood and £50,000 is the maximum penalty allowed on summary conviction 55.
The Western Morning News 56 reported the sentences in full for each of the six vessels.
An interpretation At no point in the court-case begun in 2002 had the defendants been allowed to speak in their own defence. However representations could be made via their lawyer.
During the sentencing and prior to the judge calling a break in session to decide on the punishments, a peculiar discussion had taken place in which the lawyer acting on behalf of the defendants had pleaded for leniency on the basis that the client’s actions had taken place in the context of a depressed industry and that the fishermen were doing a difficult job, battling with the elements. The judge did note these pleas, recognising that the ‘bottom had fallen out of the Spanish export market’, that fishing in foul weather was something you cannot know unless you have done it yourself, and that Cornish fishermen who have been independently pursuing their livelihood for generations must resent the intervention of government and law. This discussion seemed to me bizarre at the time. Surely, none of those issues made any difference to the fact that the defendants had breached the rules? In his final sentence the judge did show that this was indeed his stance but why was it necessary at all to indulge in what suddenly seemed like sentimental myth? In the cold formality of the court-room, it seemed that the judge was paying lip service to a guise invoked by the defendants for their own protection.
Reflecting now, it seems evident to me that the defendants and the judge were not merely trying to manipulate certain images to defend their positions, but were ‘Prosecution Opening Note’ Sentencing Hearing 5th January 2009, before HHJ Wassall in the Crown Court at Truro.
Masters and Owners: Log sheet and Landing Declaration Offences – Sea Fishing (Enforcement of Community Control Measures) Order 2000 Western Morning News, 7 January 2009 seeking a common language within which to express concerns that could not be captured within a rule-based discourse. Despite his final judgement, the judge was attempting to acknowledge the defendants’ pleas that this was not only a criminal or industrial affair but a family affair, with family and community consequences; that quota rules were one amongst many factors that fishers have to take account of when fishing, alongside unpredictable forces of nature (including weather and variability in fish populations) and market fluctuations; and that fishing in Cornwall has a long history and is rooted in tradition. In the end, the judge claimed also some leniency in imposing fines on W.S. Stevenson and Sons who were finally sentenced in July
2009. The firm were given a confiscation order of £710,220 plus a £1 fine for each one of 45 specimen charges. A two-year conditional discharge had also been issued in June but was later dropped owing to an Appeal Court judgement which ruled that a confiscation order under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 could not be attached to a conditional discharge. The judge is reported to have said at the trial in June that whatever happened in the case could have considerable knock-on effects for others involved in the fishing industry in and around Newlyn 57.
Defra must have been considered the fines negligible compared to their costs incurred during the seven years of investigation and trial. Defendants and members of the public who I spoke to at the trial understood the costs to have run into millions. In my conversations with Don Turtle, one of the defendants, the fact that the government was willing to throw such huge sums of money at punishing fishermen in contravention of quota regulations was less a reflection of the government’s commitment to protecting fish stocks than their commitment to ‘getting rid of fishermen by ruination’ in a new politico-economic climate where British interests in fishing count for less than the demands of European integration and political bargaining. Don gave me a copy of a statement he had written for the press. It was an eloquent and powerful letter that highlighted his sense of victimhood. The letter ended with the reflections of an old man who feels he has been deprived of a peaceful retirement because his way of life no longer has a place
in a changing world and he perceives this experience to be a kind of betrayal:
Western Moring News, 15 July 2009.
We have paid very dearly for the prosecution hanging over us like a ruinous sword of Damocles for the incredible time of 7yrs, put us out of business, ruined my wife’s health; hopefully the end is now in sight.
I am a WWII veteran well into my years, as I reflect the past in 1940 when Britain stood alone. We are in as perilous position now governed by laws taking precedence over parliament with much of our sovereignty signed away. My shipmates lying in a watery grave might ask, “Did we make the ultimate sacrifice to end up with the status of a vanquished nation”?
Don’s protests were supported by his wife, who again drew the attention of the press, being an eighty-three year old pensioner, and saying to the Western Morning News 58, I cannot believe I have ended up in court as a criminal when all I have done is tried to support my husband and family... Can you imagine throwing one-third of your wages in the dustbin? It was need not greed...The gut feeling of having to throw dead healthy fish over the side when you could not avoid catching it – I can’t imagine how it was.
In the previous chapter I discussed how underneath the idea of the ‘Newlyn fishing community’ there is an organisation that approximates a three-tiered stratum which incorporates wide differences in wealth, power and security. I found that the boat-owners involved in the Newlyn court case are regarded locally as belonging to the middle strata of fishing asset-holders with a reasonable income (i.e. as ‘Owners’ they draw profits from a fishing enterprise without necessarily going to sea themselves, operating their boat using a share-fishing crew under a skipper or ‘Master’). They may not be wealthy as such, but are regarded by some people I spoke to in Newlyn as not driven by poverty or absolute economic necessity and therefore having no justification for breaking quota rules. To review the particular ownership details at the time of this case: the Carol H was owned by Barney and Cynthia Thomas and skippered by Philip Mitchell. They also owned the Ajax, skippered by Raymond Knight. The Girl Patricia was owned by Leonard Williams and his son Arthur Williams who also was skipper of the vessel. The Ben Loyal was owned by Donald and Joan Turtle and skippered by their son John Turtle. The Ben My Chree was owned by Doreen Hicks, Jonathan Hicks and skippered by a James Hicks. So from another perspective, the boat-owners in this case were managing relatively small fishing enterprises in which boats were held as property between spouses and as a multi-generational income within families in the case of at least half of the vessels concerned. In terms of the law, and indeed of local common fishing Western Morning News, 7 January 2009.
practice, the defendants can be reductively described in terms of their economic relationship of Masters and Owners. However Don and Joan’s disbelief, anger and distress can be easily understood when their individual cases are not reduced to the barest possible legal facts. Their boat was a source of income for Don and Joan themselves as the owners, their son as skipper and his family, plus their additional crew and their families. So a single boat can be source of living from the sea for a whole network of local people. Whilst in Cornish fishing, fishermen receive a share of the catch and not a wage, Joan expressed the obligation they, as owners, felt to the boat’s crew as the necessity of paying ‘the men’s wages’ – terms she obviously believed would be better understood by the newspaper’s wider readership. However many fishing enterprises, of all sizes and scale are family businesses – from single boat-owning businesses (including boats of any size – from under 10m punts, to medium-sized trawlers, netters and long liners, to huge multi-million pound vessels like the family-owned purse-seiners at Peterhead) to merchant fishing firms like W.S Stevenson and Sons (who are fleet-owners, agents, processers, and buyers and sellers). Many of these firms hold considerable wealth and fishing capacity and profit from the legal and, in some cases, the illegal activity of smaller enterprises.
Furthermore, persistent breaches of quotas by even only ‘small-scale’ producers may be enough to completely undermine their aims for stock sustainability. Therefore when considering issues of fairness and justice in fishing and regulation, it is important to look beyond a simple association of family fishing and victimhood or the perception that family production means necessity must be put before responsibility. Some of the current problems of the fishing industry are historically rooted in political arguments that fishers are constrained by necessity, which may be social or economic, but ultimately originate from their dependence on nature.
Don’s letter expresses a view in which his idea of ‘Britain’ is that of an island nation bounded by the seas, but no longer secure in its sovereignty, identity or territorial rights (including its adjacent fisheries). Like many fishermen of his generation and before, his wartime service was fought at sea using the skills he had learnt in fishing and as far back as Elizabethan times, fishermen and fishing fleets have been valued as a naval reserve. In fact their perceived place in this schema of national territorial value, celebrated alongside an idea of heroism in the face of natural and foreign adversity, their absolute dependence on nature, and historical experiences of economic hardship and poverty, are perceptions held by and about fishermen that have been used by them and political representatives for centuries.