A BUSINESSMAN has spoken of his dream of buying the ‘Waterworld’ complex in Portrush to turn it into “the most fascinating lobster hatchery ever in the British Isles”.
The comment was made by George McAlpin at Coleraine Magistrates Court sitting in Ballymena.
Mr McAlpin is a director of Owey Enterprises Limited whose portfolio includes the Ramore Restaurant complex in Portrush.
Owey Enterprises Ltd was charged with possessing ten lobsters under minimum length and being an unregistered buyer of fish products.
The charges relate to August 9, 2019, and the company denied the charges.
During a contested hearing the company was given an absolute discharge in connection with possessing lobsters under minimum length and the charge of being an unregistered buyer of fish products was dismissed.
George McAlpin told the court he was involved with the Ramore complex for forty years and added: “I have never taken an under-sized lobster in my life, and never would”.
During the court hearing, he outlined plans he had to help conserve lobsters.
Mr McAlpin said there are only three lobster hatcheries and nurseries in Great Britain and Ireland and he had been studying the subject for the last seven years.
“I’m going to put my own personal hatchery in and put tens and tens of thousands of lobsters back into the sea”.
He said he would be using his “own personal money” and added: “I will be straight honest with you, I’m going to buy ‘Waterworld’ and I’m going to put the most fascinating hatchery ever in the British Isles into ‘Waterworld’.
The ‘Waterworld’ facility is close to the Ramore.
He said there were hatcheries in Padstow; Kilkeel and Edinburgh.
Mr McAlpin told the court he felt his company was being “stitched up in some sort of way”.
He then continued to outline his lobster hatchery plans.
“Out of my own personal money, tens of thousands, I’m going to put hundreds of lobsters and I feel really uncomfortable now because when I do this its as if I’m doing it because I’m getting hoodwinked”.
He said he was going to “build it all into the rock, into the stone, and bring all the sea all over”.
Damien Skillen, a British Sea Fishery Officer, told the court that on the morning of Friday August 9, 2019, he and a colleague were on patrol on the north coast and in Portrush they saw a fisherman land a catch on the quay and go into the Ramore Restaurant complex.
The officers went to the restaurant and asked to see what had been brought in and they were shown 90 lobsters on silver trays.
He said ten lobsters were undersized and they were seized and released back to the sea at Portrush Harbour.
The fisherman, David Mulligan, was previously dealt with a previous court and had been given a conditional discharge, the court heard.
Mr Skillen said any restaurant wanting to buy directly from a boat needs to be registered.
In 2017 he said he had gone round restaurants in Northern Ireland asking if they bought fish direct from boats and he left paperwork at Ramore to be filled in.
He said he left more paperwork in 2018 and in 2019 when they followed Mr Mulligan into the restaurant it was still not registered.
The court heard Mr Mulligan was the head of the Lobster Association in Portrush and used to work for the fisheries department.
Defence barrister Alan Stewart asked if there was the proof of the measurements of the lobsters.
Mr Skillen said he had used a gauge to check the lobsters and had put them back into the sea “ASAP” and accepted there was no actual note of the measurements of each lobster.
He said he had had previously checked Mr Mulligan’s stock box two or three months earlier and there were no under-sized lobsters.
He added: “I was surprised to find the undersized lobsters in the restaurant as Mr Mulligan was head of the Lobster Association in Portrush”
Mr Stewart said the buyer would be entitled to expect that the seller, who used to work for the department, would be delivering proper sized lobsters.
Mr Stewart said he wondered how a member of staff at the restaurant would have had enough time to measure the lobsters as the enforcement officers had entered “within two minutes” of them being delivered.
Mr Skillen said the lobsters being on silver trays should have meant they had time to measure them.
Mr Stewart said when Mr Mulligan was prosecuted it was heard one of his crew members had taken a “heart attack” on the day in question.
The court heard there was nothing on file at the time to show the restaurant was registered buyer of fish but Mr Stewart said the restaurant had sent the registration forms off at the time and is registered now.
George McAlpin told the court that in 40 years of running the Ramore complex he never had an issue with under-sized lobsters and he was “very disappointed” and “very surprised” with David Mulligan.
He added: “David Mulligan knows my principles”.
Mr McAlpin said they liked to buy their lobsters locally “because we like to support local.”
When a catch is brought in he said the head chef would normally check them and then pay accordingly and although the head chef had been working that day she was not immediately available to do that.
Mr McAlpin said: “David Mulligan came in very quickly. (The head chef) wasn’t there at the time. He (Mulligan) just threw the lobsters quickly into a cooking tray, put them all in there himself, weighed it, shouted a weight”.
Mr McAlpin said normally the head chef would do that “immediately”.
Mr McAlpin said it seemed “very strange” how quick department officials arrived and it meant staff had not been given much time to carry out their checking procedures.
He said he had processes that worked and added: “I have never taken an under-sized lobster in my life, and never would”.
Mr Stewart said a member of Mr Mulligan’s staff seemed to have taken very seriously ill and that was why he was not able to personally oversee the landing and the measurements.
Mr McAlpin said he would have had “full trust” in Mr Mulligan and said he was “disgusted” with him.
The court was told lobsters were brought in to be used in ‘The Mermaid’ part of the Ramore complex.
Mr McAlpin added: “This guy worked for the industry for years, this is what makes it even more surprising, he is an ex-official”.
He said if they had been given time the checks would have been carried out by his head chef.
He added: “We always check the lobsters and (the head chef) would always do it. It just seems a strange series of events how it has all come about”.
He said a lobster could live for days, and contrary to what the enforcement officer had said, he would not put an under-sized lobster in the harbour “as it would not last long” but instead you had to go out in a boat and drop it down a tube onto rocks.
A prosecution lawyer said registration to buy fish had not been completed at the time and regarding the size of the lobsters she said Mr Skillen was able to identify undersized lobsters.
She said there was perhaps too much reliance on the fisherman but the restaurant had a duty to carry out their “due diligence”.
Defence lawyer Alan Stewart said a number of procedures were not carried out by the department officials and the prosecution failed to provide essential proof in connection with the case.
He said there had been no individual measurements of the ten lobsters or even photographs beside the measurement gauge.
Mr Stewart said it was “unfair” that somebody could be held “criminally liable” for not measuring lobsters “within two minutes” of the creatures being brought to the premises.
District Judge Peter King said there was a requirement that the prosecution established the status of the seller and said in the absence of proof of the status of seller the case had not been made out and dismissed the ‘unregistered buyer’ charge.
In relation to the charge of possessing lobsters under minimum length, the judge said it had been “an analogue prosecution in a digital age”.
Although there may be better ways of providing evidence, the judge said the evidence given to him was from an experienced inspector who said using a calibrated gauge had found there were under-sized lobsters.
He said the only issue was “possession” of the lobsters. He said the court was dealing with a commercial establishment that was well-versed in the regulations and said there had been possession of the lobsters even if it was for only a very short time which had been caused by putting “undue reliance” upon a “very well thought of” fisherman.
He said Mr Mulligan “is the author of everybody’s misfortune in this case and I think it would be entirely unfair to do anything other than impose an absolute discharge”.
After the court case, a spokesperson for Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council said: “At this time, ‘Waterworld’ is not on the market for sale.”