Four fishing boats could be forfeited in the culmination of a legal battle lasting almost four years since a major search of the Napier headquarters of fishing giant Hawke's Bay Seafoods.

The possible forfeiture was signalled yesterday as 130 convictions were entered in the Wellington District Court, stemming from fishing catch regulation breaches involving under-reporting of catches, the multi-agencies raid on September 24 that year, and a hearing which spanned six months last year.

It will be considered at sentencing in the court on August 6.

A total of 85 convictions were entered against company directors and managers Antonino Giovanni (Nino) D'Esposito, Giancarlo Harold (Joe) D'Esposito and Marcus Giuseppe D'Esposito and boat skipper John Butler.

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Another 15 were entered against the company, 22 against boat owner Esplanade No 3 (operator of fishing vessels the Mutiara 2, Pacific Explorer, Trial B and Lady Ruth), and eight against another company Ocean Enterprises.

The prosecutions, alleging multiple under-reporting of catches, started in court in May last year with 355 charges stemming from 32 exports of fish, the many charges being withdrawn before the men and the companies pleaded guilty to the remainder as the hearings came to an end shortly before Christmas.

A summary by the Ministry for Primary Industries (responsible for Fisheries New Zealand) said the value of exported fish not included in the catch returns was put at $253,404.62.
It said Marcus D'Esposito recorded the quantity of bluenose caught and the details were the basis for the reports through the fisheries Quota Management System (QMS).

He knew the recorded weight was lower than that which had been landed and failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the recording of the true amount. The "falsity" was then recorded in purchase invoice by Ocean Enterprises, and unreported catch was then sold to Australian companies, the MPI said.

It said Nino D'Esposito, who has been involved in the fishing industry for more than 40 years, had been in regular contact with a skipper at sea, and, as a director of the companies, should have known the paperwork was wrong and failed to take steps to stop the misreporting, and that brother Joe D'Esposito in his responsibility for monitoring the catch should have known the exports were greater than what was reported landed and failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent the illegal sales.

Conservation organisation Forest and Bird lauded the convictions, spokesman Geoff Keey saying: "This was not a simple mistake but systematic, organised fraud. Deliberate misreporting is fraud, it's that simple. The fishing industry needs to be clear with skippers and the public that it will have zero tolerance for misreporting by its members.

"This prosecution shows why cameras on boats are needed," he said. "Had cameras been recording what was coming onto the boats it's very unlikely that this fishing operation would have dared falsify catch records and skippers would almost certainly have refused any instructions to do so."

Hawke's Bay Seafoods yesterday declined to comment.