The skipper of a luxury charter fishing boat has been fined $1350 after being caught red-handed fishing in the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve.

Steven Gray, the skipper of Cova Rose, was convicted and fined in the Whangarei District Court last month and earlier had fishing equipment forfeited after being caught with fish inside the reserve, near Riko Riko Cave, in March.

When Department of Conservation (DoC) staff carrying out underwater species monitoring boarded the Cova Rose, which Gray and two associates were on, they found two large snapper - 66cm and 70cm in length.

The two large snapper that were confiscated, along with fishing gear.
The two large snapper that were confiscated, along with fishing gear.

The "soft" penalty has surprised Whangarei marine biologist and conservationist Vince Kerr, from the Fish Forever Trust, which is trying to have a marine reserve set up in the Bay of Islands.

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"The whole point of a court case is that it should act as a deterrent and this penalty doesn't do that," Mr Kerr said.

Nor did it put into context where the infringement occurred: "It's got an international reputation and it also supports a local economy. "These kinds of violations can be very harmful."

The charge of taking from a marine reserve (Marine Reserve Act 1971) carries a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and/or three months imprisonment. A DoC spokeswoman said Gray's early guilty plea stood him in good stead.

Unlike with Ministry of Primary Industries' fisheries infringements, a vessel cannot be seized and forfeited for the charge he faced. A more serious charge of taking from a marine reserve for commercial purposes carries a maximum $250,000 fine, and/or three months imprisonment and can include forfeiture of a vessel.

Marine ranger Marie Jordan hoped the penalty for the second case of illegal fishing in a marine reserve in Northland this year did send a strong message: "There is no excuse for skippers to be unaware of the law and we hope this conviction sends a reminder for anyone entering one of the 44 marine reserves around New Zealand."

As well as the reserve's boundaries being marked on GPS chart plotters, there are permanent markers and signage at public access points, including the Tutukaka boat ramp, she said.

Gray skippers the Cova Rose, owned by Whakatane-based Enchanter Fishing Charters. He had stopped overnight at the Poor Knights on March 10 while taking the vessel from the Bay of Plenty to Mangonui, where it is often chartered.

The first prosecution for illegal fishing this year came after a man put out a net in the Whangarei Harbour Marine Reserve near Onerahi in February. The man received 50 hours' community service and the net was confiscated by DoC.

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No fish were caught in that incident.