A Northland oyster farmer wasn't happy with the way the justice system dealt with the theft of half a tonne of oysters — so he took the thief to the Disputes Tribunal and won almost $2000 in reparation.

Owen Robertson, who farms in Whangaroa Harbour, said he was forced to carry out a DIY prosecution to deter future thieves and prove his farm wasn't the easiest place to steal from.

One night last July, 38 sacks of freshly harvested oysters were stolen from his farm, each containing nine dozen oysters. The half-tonne haul was worth about $3400 on the black market.

At the time, a fuming Robertson said the theft didn't just threaten his livelihood and his workers' jobs, it also put public health at risk because the oysters hadn't been cleared for eating.


He offered a reward for information and tracked down private CCTV footage which showed a Totara North man getting in his boat on the night of the theft and returning hours later as the tide was coming back in.

The thief arriving at Owen Robertson's oyster farm, all set for plundering. Photo / Supplied.
The thief arriving at Owen Robertson's oyster farm, all set for plundering. Photo / Supplied.
The thief leaving the scene two and a half hours later. Photo / Supplied.
The thief leaving the scene two and a half hours later. Photo / Supplied.

When Robertson visited the man's home he found some of his oysters and oyster sacks.

The man, Matthew Smith, admitted taking five bags of oysters and agreed to work for Robertson for 10 days if he didn't report him.

When he later backed out of the deal Robertson called Kaeo police.

Smith pleaded guilty in the Kaikohe District Court to taking five bags of oysters and was ordered to pay reparation, but that still left Robertson out of pocket for the other 33 bags.

With the police and courts unwilling or unable to do more, Robertson took the case to the Disputes Tribunal, which could hear claims of up to $20,000.

Smith's explanation to the police was someone else must have taken the other 33 bags. The CCTV showed no other boat in the area at the time.

Robertson told the tribunal small-scale thefts were common but in many years as a farmer he had never had entire sacks of shellfish stolen, so the chances of it happening twice in one night were remote.


He also provided other evidence suggesting Smith had taken well in excess of five bags.

He sought $3894 in reparation, being the market value of 297 dozen oysters at $12 a dozen plus $10 for each bag.

After hearing the evidence the Disputes Tribunal ruled the most probable explanation for the disappearing oysters was that Smith took them all.

The tribunal also ruled, however, that the correct measure of Robertson's loss was the wholesale price of $5 a dozen. The tribunal ordered Smith to pay $1485 for the oysters and $330 for the bags, a total of $1815.

Robertson said he pursued the case to prove it wasn't easy to steal from his farm.

''These people are parasites, and parasites will go for the easiest places to make money.''

Police should have done more legwork and charged Smith with taking all 38 bags, he said.


A police spokesman said, however, they couldn't prove the offender had taken more than five bags.

In a criminal court, police had to prove beyond reasonable doubt an offender was guilty; in a civil court such as the Disputes Tribunal, a case only had to be proven ''on the balance of probabilities''.

Smith did not attend the hearing.

Disputes Tribunal decisions are binding and could not be appealed.