Community work for trio who plundered mussels from Whangarei Harbour

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The 2863 mussels that James Ututaonga, Malau Hei and Jan Watts plundered from Whangarei Harbour in August.PHOTO/FILE
The 2863 mussels that James Ututaonga, Malau Hei and Jan Watts plundered from Whangarei Harbour in August.PHOTO/FILE

Three men caught with the largest ever illegal haul of mussels in Northland - if not New Zealand - have been sentenced to community work.

James Frederick Ututaonga, aged 41, Malau Whiti Hei, 36 and Jan Watts, 39, appeared in Whangarei District Court on Thursday after pleading guilty to a charge of possessing fish in contravention of the FIsheries Act. Ututaonga also pleased guilty to a charge of obstructing a fisheries office executing their powers or duties and Hei pleaded guilty to a charge of abetting the obstruction of the officer.

The unemployed trio were nabbed after taking 2638 green-lipped mussels - the daily limit is 50 per person - from Mair Bank, off Marsden Pt, on August 31, last year after Hei had borrowed his father's Toyota Hilux ute and 3.5m aluminium dinghy and trailer to gather the shellfish.

Judge Patrick Treston sentenced Ututaonga and Hei to 260 hours of community work and Watts to 220 hours, after taking off 25 per cent of the sentences for their early guilty pleas.

He also ordered that the ute, boat and other equipment used by the trio be forfeited to the Crown.

The summary of facts said it took the trio about two hours to fill six baskets with the mussels before they returned in their vessel to McLeod Bay to unload the shellfish into the trailer.

They were stopped by a fisheries officer near Parua Bay and Ututaonga, who was driving, denied any knowledge of the mussels that were in the trailer. Hei, who initially said he did not have customary permit to take the shellfish, then said he did have a permit, but it was at home. Hei said he needed to gather the mussels for a tangi.

The fisheries officer told the trio to drive to the Ministry for Primary Industry's Whangarei office, and Ututaonga said he knew where that was and would drive there. But on the journey back the trio Hei attempted to organise a retrospective customary permit to gather shellfish and tried to organise access to Otangarei Marae to evade the fisheries officer. Hei told Ututaonga to drive to the marae instead of the MPI office.

The fisheries officer tried to stop them using his blue flashing lights and siren after they instead headed for Otangarei where they were finally stopped and taken to the MPI office.
Hei told MPI that the group had gathered the mussels under a customary permit issued by Freeman Paul for his father's Maori Warden meeting at Otangarei Marae.

He also said they were helped by other people to gather the shellfish, but he was unable to name any of them. It was later found that the customary permit had not been issued to Hei before he gathered the shellfish. The mussels were later returned to Mair Bank.

Judge Treston said the trio were involved in serious offending, and while some might see it as a victimless crime, they stole from a resource that belonged to the whole country.

He said it was one of, if not the, largest amounts of illegal mussels ever detected by fisheries officers, in Whangarei, if not the country and such actions were a real threat to the sustainability of the resource.

"There must be a sentence [imposed on the trio] that deters you and others from the rape of this resource," Judge Treston said.

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