Kaikoura trio avoid jail over black market crayfish

Kaikoura trio avoid jail over black market crayfish

Three Kaikoura locals have avoided jail despite selling nearly $70,000 worth of crayfish illegally as part of the region's black market.

The trio –  Susan Birnie, 70,  Stephen John Palmer, 54, and Mark Anthony Ruston, 45 – operated like a part-time business, taking their legal catch every day and on-selling the product illegally.

It came crashing down in 2014 when one of their long-time customers turned out to be an undercover compliance officer and the trio now face community-based punishments.

Judge Stephen O'Driscoll sentenced Birnie and Rushton to five months community detention and 250 hours community work and Palmer to 400 hours community work at the Kaikoura District Court.

They all had previously entered guilty pleas to Fisheries Act charges for illegally selling crayfish.

The trio were arrested along with 40 other people in a massive undercover sting orchestrated by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in 2014.

Palmer sold 697 crayfish – worth around $33,000 commercially – to an undercover officer over several months for just seven thousand dollars, while Rushton sold around 740 at a similar rate. Birnie was involved in cooking, wrapping and storing the crayfish in freezers for sale.

Crown prosecutor Kathy Bell called for a sentence of imprisonment or home detention saying - while the illegal profits were "modest" - there was a "long-standing pattern of offending".

"This type of offending is prevalent in this region and it's also very difficult to detect," she said.

"They were not isolated or one-off incidents, the three defendants were practically operating a part-time business."

Defence lawyer Tim Spear suggested the undercover compliance officer – who purchased 1200 cooked crayfish over 12 months – had "dragged out" the offending.

 "The defendants were actually being used as bait to catch the bigger fish at the receiving end," he said.

"MPI could have nipped this in the bud at a much earlier time, they would then be facing much lesser sentencing."

Fellow defence lawyer Tony Garrett also highlighted "encouragement" from the compliance officer, suggesting the practice was "customary" and often contributed to the length of offending.

 Lawyer Phil Watson asked for a lenient approach for Mark Ruston to allow for health issues.

Judge O'Driscoll refused to criticise MPI over the operation and instead pointed to the trio's greed.

"You have cheated the taxpayer, you have cheated your neighbour's in Kaikoura and you have cheated those who have an interest in the crayfish industry," he said.

"You were clearly willing to sell to the undercover officer, you were clearly willing to take, sell and process crayfish. You were not forced to do that, you could have said no but I suspect the opportunity to make some money was too great for you."

The sentence was reduced slightly due to a lack of convictions for similar offending.