Authorities have nabbed four men allegedly hiding hundreds of dollars worth of illegally sourced seafood amid New Years’ Eve celebrations in Melbourne.
As revellers unfurled picnic blankets to watch the fireworks along Green Point in the luxury suburb of Brighton, fisheries officers began quietly watching three men in their thirties diving nearby for abalone.
Hours later the group were allegedly observed carrying their catch towards a white van. With crowds beginning to swell, authorities believe the men chose to hide their three bags of abalone inside thick wetsuits.
While the daily abalone bag limit is five per person, the men were allegedly caught with 311 and 286 of those were found to be undersized. It's a number Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) acting CEO Ian Parks told Yahoo News Australia is "certainly out of the ordinary".
"It's three times the commercial quantity, under the legislation, so it is a significant amount of abalone," he added.
Abalone can fetch $70 per kilogram on the black market, but the price legitimate divers received from buyers is much higher at $120. It's estimated the haul could have earned the men around $700.
To ensure stocks remain healthy, Victoria has some of the harshest penalties for abalone poaching in the country, including up to 10 years' jail for illegally harvesting a commercial quantity.
Abalone divers allegedly try to flee scene
When the men were approached, it's alleged they tried to avoid apprehension. In a statement, Mr Parks said officers observed one of the men getting into a second car in an attempt to flee the scene, but he was blocked by a VFA vehicle.
VFA alleges the lookout tried to escape by blending in with the crowd, but he too was quickly caught.
Following the incident, the van was put on a retention notice, the wetsuits were seized and the men now face a number of charges in relation to taking undersize abalone and exceeding the catch limit.
While the abalone were released back into the water, it's unknown if they'll survive as the slightest bruise can lead to blood loss and death. "Given the process of using levers to remove them and taking them out of the water, their chances of survival aren't that good," Mr Parks said.
It's the second large haul of abalone to be detected by VFA in recent weeks. In a separate incident on December 27, a man and woman were allegedly caught holding 116, with the majority stashed inside two intricate concealments inside a boat.
Victoria has a 24-hour fisheries hotline and anyone who suspects or witnesses illegal activity is urged to call 13FISH (133 474).
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