Crayfish seized in massive sting

ANNA PEARSON
Last updated 05:00 30/05/2014

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A Christchurch restaurant has been caught up in a black-market crayfish ring busted by undercover government employees.

The 12-month Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) operation targeting recreational fishermen catching and selling rock lobster, also known as crayfish, involved 50 compliance officers.

An undercover compliance officer bought 1200 cooked crayfish from recreational fishermen during the sting.

Ten cars, five boats and a tractor were seized in the execution of 32 search warrants.

MPI said many of the 43 people caught during "Op 15" - which mainly focused on activities in the Kaikoura area, but also included Christchurch and Nelson/Marlborough - were likely to face serious charges.

Selling rock lobster is punishable by up to five years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.

A restaurant in Christchurch and a food wholesaler were also caught, but MPI would not name them for legal reasons.

Director of compliance Dean Baigent said information gathered by MPI suggested there had been a "thriving" black market in Kaikoura for some time.

"Recreational fishers have been fishing in a pseudo-commercial way and selling their catch to supply a large black market including locals, tourists, hotels and restaurants and businesses further afield," he said.

The retail price for rock lobster was about $90 a kilogram, which was usually about two crayfish of legal size.

The "recreational black marketers" MPI caught were selling whole cooked rock lobster for between $10 and $15 each.

Daryl Sykes, executive officer of the New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council, said he had "mixed feelings" about the operation's result.

"We're absolutely delighted that all their hard work paid off and absolutely appalled at what they found," he said.

Kaikoura was part of a well-managed and "highly-regarded" rock lobster fishery extending from the top of the South Island down the east coast to the Waitaki River, Sykes said.

Commercial fishers with permits and quota had invested significant amounts of time and money into ensuring the good management of the fishery, he said.

CRAMAC5, one of nine rock lobster management areas in New Zealand, was last week given "the big tick" by international independent authority Friend of the Sea.

CRAMAC5 spokesman Larnce Wichman, who is also chairman of coastal guardian group Te Korowai o Te Tai o Marokura, said he was surprised at the extent of the problem.

"Obviously they are harvesting, storing and selling to open markets. We have done all the hard work to build the fishery up. To exploit [it] is shameful," he said.

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- The Press

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