Two migrant workers caught netting fish and barbecuing them on the bank in the close season have been ordered to forfeit boats and equipment worth thousands of pounds in a landmark court ruling.
The Environment Agency's national head of enforcement said the case sent out a clear message that stealing fish from Britain's rivers would not be tolerated and pledged it would take "strong action" to bring offenders to justice.
Last night the Pike Anglers Club of Great Britain said: "We're pleased this test case has come to court and magistrates have sent out a strong message that they will not tolerate the wholesale removal of specimen fish from our rivers for food."
Gunars Kaspers, 39, and Oleg Stepin, 43, had admitted fishing in the close season, fishing without rod licences and the theft of perch, tench and eels from Norfolk's River Wissey at an earlier hearing.
Stepin also admitted using a gill net and an unlicensed boat, on a remote stretch of the Fenland river.
As they entered the dock at King's Lynn magistrates court today Joe Ghiradelo, prosecuting, said: “Mr Stepin and Mr Kaspers were found by officers on May 24 this year. They were seen on the River Wissey between Hilgay and West Dereham.
“They were seen to be engaged in angling, there were two other people with them and all four were arrested.”
One of those arrested did not face charges, the court was told. Another man who jumped bail is now wanted by police and believed to have fled the country.
Mr Ghiradelo said anyone who fished in England and Wales had to be in possession of an Environment Agency Rod Licence and there was a close season between March 15 and June 15, when no fishing was allowed on rivers.
He said by-laws required anglers to return fish alive. The court heard there were signs at access points along the River Wissey explaining this rule.
“When police attended they found rods set up and evidence that the persons involved intended to stay there for some period of time,” said Mr Ghiradelo.
“Fish were found in the water with a wire through their mouths, perch and tench. There were efforts to return them but most did not survive."
Tench to 7lbs were among fish found by police retained on a clothes line tethered to the bank. Mr Ghiradelo said when officers arrived at the river, they saw a net being placed from a boat.
“As they approached, officers saw two people in a dinghy and believe they saw a net being cast from the dinghy," he told the court.
“That net was a gill net, it was not only unlicensed but you wouldn’t get a license for something like that – it was 60m long and 2m deep.”
Finding such a large gill net convinced investigators that the men arrested were trying to catch more fish than they could eat during a camping trip, the court was told.
”There’s a concern this was more than for their own use, but might have been to take the fish and sell them on for commercial use,” said Mr Ghiradelo, before he reminded the magistrates that they had powers to make an order for the forfeiture of boats and equipment seized in the swoop.
Pictures shown in court featured the men’s makeshift camp on the banks of the Wissey. They also showed eels, bream and pike being barbecued, while tench to 7lbs were being kept alive on a stringer made from a washing line, which had been threaded through their gills.
“Mr Stepin and Mr Kaspers are both from Eastern Europe where it is customary to catch fish and deal with them in this way,” said Mr Ghiradelo.
“But there has been publicity about this sort of thing in the angling community, killing so many fish can have a serious affect on the fish and the environment.”
Tim Bartlam, defending, said Kaspers and Stepin were fishing on the Wissey with friends, as they had done on previous occasions.
He said: “This was not a commercial enterprise and I ask you to bear that in mind. They have no previous convictions, they have been in this country for a number of years and they’re hard working.”
He said Kaspers worked for Ross Foods, while Stepin ran a shop selling Eastern European food. Speaking through an interpreter, both men gave addresses in Aberdeen.
Sentencing the men, chair of the bench Charlotte Paton said: “Mr Stepin you were charged with five offences to which you have pled guilty and Mr Kaspers you have pled guilty to three offences.
“We have taken into account – particularly in the theft offence – that neither of you has been charged with theft previously and you are both of good character.”
Stepin was ordered to pay costs of £60 and to surrender his boat, outboard motor and petrol pump, said in court to be worth around £4000. Kaspars was also ordered to pay costs of £60 and to surrender his dinghy, worth up to £1000.
After the hearing Neil Sampson, national fisheries enforcement officer for the Environment Agency, said: “Although we were disappointed that these men were not given a more severe sentence, the forfeiture of their boats will leave a large hole in both their pockets.
“The result sends out a clear message that illegal fishing practices will not be tolerated - the Environment Agency will take strong action to ensure offenders are brought to face justice. It also highlights the importance of vigilance from the public and how by working together with the Norfolk Constabulary, we were able to bring this case to court.
“Illegal fishing can not only cause environmental damage, but fishing without a valid rod licence disadvantages those anglers who have paid their contribution towards helping maintain fisheries work that benefits all anglers in England and Wales.”
Det Con Ian Young, of Downham Market CID, said: “Following the tip off, our officers attended the scene found fish on a barbeque and several live fish threaded on a washing line and kept alive in the river.
"The live fish, including several tench between four and seven pounds and a two and a half pound perch, all had scale damage. The perch died on its release.
“Police officers seized several items including a boat with an outboard motor, a small dinghy and fishing equip-ment. All four men were arrested. Of the two other men arrested, one was released without charge.
"The other man failed to re-appear and is now wanted by the police. It is believed that he has left the country.
“During the course of our investigation it became clear that the four men were an organised group who had travelled from Scotland to a remote part of Norfolk with the intention of stealing a large quantity of fish.”