Major players in the Illawarra’s commercial fishing and restaurant industries are facing millions of dollars in fines and possible jail time after being found guilty of participating in illegal fishing practices.
More than 250 charges were laid against four individuals and three companies following a six-month investigation by NSW Fisheries in early 2014.
The mammoth court case, which has been heard in stages over a period of about 18 months, has centred on the business practices of Wollongong fisherman Pasquale Mr Brancatisano, who was employed by Unanderra business Lochiel South Pty Ltd to fish for eastern rock lobster off the Illawarra coast line.
Mr Brancatisano was responsible for trapping, tagging and on-selling the lobsters. The authority alleged that Mr Brancatisano deliberately overfished the species then failed to properly tag the catch, or left tags off altogether in a bid to skirt the legal quota applicable under NSW law.
It was alleged he illlegally sold thousands of dollars worth of untagged lobster at a reduced cost to Wollongong’s Harbourfront Restaurant, Shellharbour fishmonger James Prodanovski, and Seacliff Functions Pty Ltd, the company behind The Lagoon and Seacliff Restaurants.
(Harbourfront and Mr Prodanovski had their cases dealt with separately to the main hearing and were both convicted of two offences each.)
Meantime, Magistrate David Williams was tasked with hearing a combined 235 charges, half of which were against Mr Brancatisano.
The remaining charges were spread between Seacliff, Seacliff’s head chef Emmanuel Efstathiadis, Lochiel South, and one of its directors, Tory Lavalle.
Evidence relied upon in the case included hours of covert surveillance carried out by Fisheries officers, GPS vessel movement data from the Lochiel South fishing boat, daily catch log sheets, trap records, Brancatisano’s tax invoice books, consignment records and financial records from Seacliff and Lochiel South.
In a 224-page judgment delivered in Port Kembla Local Court on Friday, Magistrate Williams found prosecutors had proven all but 18 of the charges beyond reasonable doubt.
Among the charges proven against Mr Brancatisano were multiple counts of trafficking in an indictable species of fish, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars.
Several other charges carry individual fines worth tens of thousands of dollars per offence.
The group will face a sentencing hearing later this year. Prosecutors are also expected to seek legal costs.