The angling world was left shocked and angry this week after Russian migrant workers who engaged in the systematic and illegal closed season slaughter of fish stocks on a Norfolk river walked away from court virtually scot-free.
Back in May, Gunars Kaspers (39) and Oleg Stepin (43) set up a bankside camp on the River Wissey from where they fished multiple rod set-ups and launched two boats armed with 60ft gill nets to massacre large numbers of fish, including specimen-sized tench, perch, pike and bream.
After a tip-off, police swooped on the camp where they found crude stringers stuffed with fish in the margins, along with barbecues complete with numerous fish carcasses. Last week, factory worker Kaspers and Stepin, who runs a shop selling Eastern European food, entered guilty pleas to a string of offences, including stealing fish, fishing during the closed season and with an unlicensed instrument, and the use of an unregistered vessel.
Appearing before King’s Lynn magistrates last Friday, the pair were expected to receive a hefty punishment which would have sent a clear message to Eastern European poachers that the illegal plundering of UK fish stocks will not be tolerated. Instead, the two accused were ordered to pay just £60 in costs and had their boats confiscated.
Joe Ghiradelo, prosecuting, told the court that it was within the powers of the magistrate to make an order of forfeiture for the pair’s boats and equipment to be seized.
“It’s regrettable that Mr Stepin and Mr Kaspers are both from Eastern Europe where it is customary to catch fish and deal with them in this way. But there has been publicity about this sort of thing in the angling community, killing so many fish can have a serious effect 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.”
Sentencing the men, chairman of the bench Charlotte Paton said: “We have taken into account that neither of you has been charged with theft previously, and you are both of good character.”
The leniency of the sentence handed down has understandably angered many concerned with the case, not least Ashley Brown, secretary of King’s Lynn AC, which controls the fishing on the stretch.
He said: “We’re very disappointed with the outcome and think that an opportunity was missed to set a precedent that this type of behaviour will simply not be tolerated. Handing down a huge fine would have served as a big deterrent for anybody else who is thinking of engaging in this type of unacceptable behaviour. I also feel sorry for the Environment Agency and Norfolk police who have worked hard on this case, and undoubtedly would have liked a more positive outcome.
“We shall continue to bailiff our waters with increased vigour and extra patrols until poachers get the message.”
Neil Sampson, a national fisheries enforcement officer at the Environment Agency who was present at the hearing, said outside the court: “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.”
In the angling world, however, the outrage at the sentence was more apparent, with AT columnist Des Taylor left reeling by the leniency displayed by the courts. His reaction to the news will strike a chord with many in the UK angling community.
“It is an absolute disgrace and makes me sick to the pit of my stomach,” said Des. “There have got to be penalties introduced for this sort of thing which people are genuinely afraid of, real deterrents. In my opinion, this case is symptomatic of the decline of society.
“If I was a younger man, in my thirties, I’d move to Canada or Australia, away from this country I was once proud of.”
These are sentiments echoed by AT editor Richard Lee: “This result is a slap in the face for every one of us who pays a licence fee. They were caught red-handed, yet all they got was £60 costs and their boats taken away. This must be heartbreaking for the EA and police who worked so hard to bring the case to court.”