Dozens of fishing catch returns and other documents are alleged to have been falsified by Napier company Hawke's Bay Seafoods, a judge has been told at the start of an expected four-month trial in the District Court at Wellington.

The trial started before Judge Bill Hastings yesterday, with Ministry for Primary Industries prosecutor Stephanie Bishop saying there was deliberate and wide-reaching under-reporting of catches over about two years.

An investigation culminated in a search of the company's premises on the corner of Pandora Rd and West Quay, Ahuriri, in September 2014, involving MPI, Police, Immigration and Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment staff, the laying of hundreds of charges under the Fisheries Act, and restraining orders on eight properties, five vehicles and more than $24,000 under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act.

The judge-alone trial involves 355 charges, relating to what the MPI says were 32 fish-exporting events. Charges are variously against Hawke's Bay Seafoods and associated companies Ocean Enterprises and Esplanade No 3, Hawke's Bay Seafoods directors and brothers Antonino Giovanni (Nino) D'Esposito and brother Giancardo Harold (Joe) D'Esposito, manager Marcus Giuseppe D'Esposito, and fishing vessel skippers David Macale, Ricky Parker, Robert Harvey and Patrick Stanley.


Ms Bishop alleged offences were orchestrated "from the top" and the necessary skippers' collusion was gained by cash payments and continued employment. Catches totalling up to 63 tonnes of bluenose and 3.5 tonnes of trumpeter were involved, motivated by a lack of catch entitlement and prospects of export market advantages.

Charges involve mainly two types of offence, with false statements on catch-return records and selling fish not properly reported to MPI.

She said evidence of offending emerged when the MPI discovered a discrepancy between details of fish quantity landed and amounts being exported.

It was claimed Nino D'Esposito contacted skippers at sea and told what catch estimates should be recorded, and that when catches were landed Marcus D'Esposito under-recorded weights, details which "found their way" into other records, such as purchase invoices which were required by the act.

Hawke's Bay Seafoods has been operating about 20 years, across the industry from fishing to processing, retail and exporting and increasingly involved in joint ventures with Ngati Kahungunu and other iwi, with interests in vessels including the 34-metre Glomfjord, which was bought in Norway and which arrived in Nelson in April to fish initially off the West Coast of the South Island.