Some Hawke's Bay fishing companies committed a deliberate, wide-ranging and sophisticated fraud by under-reporting catch figures to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), a court has been told.
Hawkes Bay Seafoods Limited, several subsidiaries, and its directors or managers - including Nino D'Esposito, Joe D'Esposito and Marcus D'Esposito - have gone on trial in the Wellington District Court.
Other defendants include the skippers of several fishing boats working for companies associated with the Hawkes Bay Seafoods group.
Together, the defendants are facing a total of 355 charges laid by MPI, relating to 32 fish export events covering bluenose and trumpeter.
In her opening address, Crown prosecutor Stephanie Bishop told the court the charges covered two types of offence - making false statements on catch return records, and selling fish that had not been properly reported to the MPI.
She said the offending came to light when the ministry found a discrepancy between figures for the amount of fish landed compared with the amount the companies were exporting.
"The ministry says they under-reported between 45 and 63 tonnes of bluenose and 1.7 and 3.5 tonnes of trumpeter.
"[They] were motivated by the ability to avoid [their liabilities] for fishing in those areas and the prospect of gaining export market advantage by selling bluenose and trumpeter at a lower price than competitors."
Ms Bishop said Nino D'Esposito contacted skippers at sea and told them how much bluenose and trumpeter they were to record as an estimate.
She said once the fish were landed, Marcus D'Esposito recorded their weight in a document for the company, which was the only opportunity they had to record the actual weight of the fish landed.
"[He] deliberately recorded weights lower than the actual weight of the fish landed and [those figures] found their way into other documentation, including the purchase invoice - a document required to be kept under the fisheries legislation."
In doing that, the ministry accused Marcus D'Esposito of aiding or procuring offending by the other defendants, she said.
Based on the discrepancy in the export paperwork, the defendants benefited by about $380,000 for the sale of bluenose and $11,000 for trumpeter, Ms Bishop said.
Their actions could also slow the rebuilding of New Zealand's fish stocks, she said.
The trial before Judge Bill Hastings is expected to run for about four months.