MPI fisheries officers to use body cameras during illegal fishing investigations following surge in violence, abuse towards staff

Newshub can reveal fisheries officers will start using body cameras to record video and audio when investigating illegal fishing following a surge in violence and abuse towards staff. 

Fisheries officers have been hit with cars, assaulted, and intimidated, all while just trying to verify whether people are taking excess or undersized fish.

Several Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) staff have reported facing dangerous and often volatile situations.

"I got hit by a car in January last year around Red Rocks," says Allan Gilmour, a senior fisheries officer in Petone.

He was deliberately hit by a car while trying to help free a vehicle stuck in the sand.

"I jumped up in the air, spun around, and he squashed me against a patrol truck and I just spun around the car," Gilmour says.

His colleague Mike Bewick, a compliance adviser in the Tokelau Islands, has faced similar incidents.

"Recently had a vessel try and ram us basically. It decided it wasn't going to facilitate the inspection," he says.

"Tried to run us into the rocks, and when we didn't give up the chase, it actually turned to us and I thought it was going to come through the side."

Amid the commotion, the crew on the offending vessel started throwing undersized fish overboard.

Last year, 57 offences were recorded, including people resisting inspections, failing to comply with the law, or using threatening language. 

"The sad thing is we've got those numbers and one is one too many as far as I'm concerned," says Gary Orr, head of compliance at MPI.

He says it's "unacceptable" and that's why cameras are being rolled out to help prevent violence. 

"I want to change the behaviour of those that we interact with and people go, 'Oh, I'm going to being filmed' and that video will be played in court if necessary," Orr says.

Most commonly, those obstructing officers will have undersized or excess catch.

"[Stealing] is the best way to describe it, this is theft."

It is theft of a resource that belongs to all New Zealanders, and MPI says that type of offending ranges from low level to serious and involves organised criminal groups.

Summaries of court cases released to Newshub reveal a history of violent interactions.

In 2014, at Te Kaha in the Bay of Plenty, Justin Koia "drove deliberately" at a fisheries officer at a checkpoint and later punched the officer. He had three times the limit of kina.

In 2015, at Auckland's Half Moon Bay, Head Hunters gang members Tobias and Tremain Maaka told honorary fisheries officers "not to f**k with the Head Hunters", saying "we can find you" and "you're going to need plastic surgery when I am done with you".

When asked if they had a permit, Tobias dropped his pants exposing himself, saying "yeah, it's here".

They had three times the daily limit of scallops and 192 were undersized.

And in 2019, when approached by officers in the Ohiwa Harbour near Opotiki, Mark Trusler swore at officers warning he'd "take your legs out" and "rip your throat out with my fingers".

Andre Espinoza, the regional manager of fisheries compliance of the western North Island at MPI, says such incidents are terrifying.

"Generally sleepness nights you know, and it's those veiled threats that they're going to come and find us or our families."

It's hoped having these cameras will make people think twice. 

"If we've had to capture evidence, it means that something has gone wrong. What we want to be able to do is use the cameras as a deterrent," Orr says.

They're being trialled, but it's expected all 120 frontline fisheries officers will have them by March 2022.