By KELLY BLANCHARD in Rotorua
A former Rotorua man has admitted his involvement in a massive illegal commercial freshwater crayfish operation that yielded him nearly $30,000 over seven months.
Alfred Whakaturia Morehu, a 43-year-old manager, pleaded guilty in the Rotorua District Court this week to seven charges of illegally selling koura, or freshwater crayfish.
It is believed to be the first prosecution of its kind in New Zealand.
His company, Mataura Native Ltd, and business partner, Justin Haronga Te Kowhai, 34, also appeared in court facing the same charges but their matters have been adjourned until June 9 to discuss the charges with their newly appointed lawyer, Harry Edward.
Mr Morehu was involved in harvesting koura from Lake Rotoma and selling at least 706kg of it at $40 a bag between March and September last year.
The koura were sold to a distributor for at least $28,000, who onsold the koura to a wide client base including hotels and restaurants throughout New Zealand.
The illegal operation came to the notice of the Department of Conservation in August last year after it got information about the availability of koura at various restaurants.
Fisheries officers inspected the kitchen of an Auckland restaurant and found live koura in a chiller.
The koura had been harvested from Lake Rotoma, between Rotorua and Whakatane, by employees of Mataura Native Ltd and sold via the distributor for $55 a kg.
When interviewed by the fisheries officers, Mr Morehu admitted being a founder of Mataura Native Ltd and said he was a director, even though he is not listed as such with the Companies Office.
The Department of Conservation administers the Freshwater Fishery Regulations 1983.
Koura may be gathered for personal consumption up to a limit of 50 fish a day. However, the selling, trading or possession of koura for the purposes of sale or trade is an offence under the regulations.
Mr Morehu said he had initially sought the approval to harvest koura from local iwi which was followed by discussions with the Ministry of Fisheries about the process of applying for a fish farm licence.
But that option was not followed up after it was decided the "wild harvest" of koura was a more viable option.
Mr Morehu said he was not involved in harvesting and his primary function was filing orders and distributing the packaged koura to clients.
Department of Conservation lawyer Mike Bodie said at no time had the department or Ministry of Fisheries given authority to anyone to commercially harvest koura. The Te Arawa Maori Trust Board had also not given any such approval.
At least 14,000 koura are estimated to have been harvested and sold during the seven months.
Mr Bodie told the Daily Post outside the courtroom the restaurants that had bought the koura were upmarket.
He said they had purchased the fish from an Auckland distributor that had been assured the koura had been harvested legally.
Mr Bodie said koura were an expensive delicacy that could be purchased legally from a licensed fish farm.
Restaurant Association of New Zealand chief executive officer Alistar Rowe said most reputable restaurants bought from distributors they could trust that had already ensured their suppliers were legitimate.
"They are not interested in a guy coming to the back door saying 'do you want to buy some fish'. They will probably tell him to sling his hook."
Mr Rowe said the best chefs used the best ingredients and knew where they came from.
Te Runanga o Ngati Pikiao general manager Dennis Curtis did not want to comment on the case other than to say it was unfortunate.
The maximum penalty Mr Morehu faces is a fine of $35,000.
Mr Morehu's presence was excused in court yesterday because he now lives in Australia.
Judge Rota remanded Mr Morehu to reappear for sentencing on June 22. Mr Morehu was represented by Louis Te Kani from Rotorua.
By KELLY BLANCHARD in Rotorua