The ringleader of a trout-poaching group which illegally netted 27 trout at a trout stream near Turangi has narrowly avoided being sent to jail.
Michael Harry Wikotu, 58, of Turangi, appeared in the Taupo District Court on Wednesday for sentencing on charges of netting trout congregated for spawning, and of disturbing spawning grounds of rainbow trout.
His associates Buster Hamiora George, 29, of Turangi, and David Alexander Allen, 25, of Taumarunui, who helped Wikotu net the trout on the Tokaanu Stream - an important trout-spawning stream which is closed to fishing all year round - were both charged with being a party to netting trout congregated for spawning and possession of rainbow trout taken unlawfully.
A fourth man, Toi Aramoana, 59, of Taumarunui, was charged with the lesser offence of possession of rainbow trout taken unlawfully.
All four had earlier pleaded guilty to the charges.
Judge Maree Mackenzie found that of the four, Wikotu was the most culpable as he was the principal offender. Aramoana, who helped retrieve the dead fish and carry them back to the vehicle, was held to be the least culpable.
The summary of facts said that on September 9 last year, Wikotu and the other three men travelled to the Tokaanu Stream, which is prohibited to fishing at all times because of its importance as a trout-spawning area.
It was the height of the trout-spawning season and numerous trout were in the stream at the time. The men crossed private farmland to reach the stream, where, with the help of George and Allen, Wikotu set a gill net across the stream. They then walked through the stream, causing damage to trout-spawning beds and herding the fish into the net.
In the early hours of the morning, Department of Conservation rangers arrived and caught the four men with two backpacks containing 27 dead trout and the gill net. Wikotu became aggressive and refused to surrender the gear, swearing at the rangers.
His explanation for having the trout was that they were for a tangi, but would not say whose.
DOC said the impact of the offending was serious because it had severely impacted the 2015 spawning in the Tokaanu Stream, on trout stocks, on the environment and on the Taupo fishery, which contributed millions of dollars annually to the Taupo and Turangi economies.
All of the trout taken were in spawning condition and eight were females.
Judge Mackenzie said aggravating factors were that the offending was premeditated and planned, that four men were involved in various ways and carried out the plan even if they were not initially aware of Wikotu's intentions, that a significant number of fish were taken, that the victim was the public at large, that the offending was difficult to detect, that the defendants were on private land, and Wikotu's behaviour after the rangers arrived.
Wikotu already had a previous conviction for fishing with a net in 1998.
Before sentencing the group, Judge Mackenzie noted that Wikotu, George and Allen's offences were subject to a term of imprisonment of two years or a $100,000 fine. Wikotu was sentenced to three months' home detention, with the judge saying it was only by a slim margin that she was not sending him to prison.
He also received 200 hours' community work, forfeiture and destruction of all the items seized, and was disqualified from driving for six months because his vehicle was used in the offending.
George received 300 hours' community work, Allen 200 hours' community work and Aramoana 60 hours' community work.