Arnold Bengis, head of the now defunct company Hout Bay Fishing, has pleaded not guilty in a New York court to charges of smuggling Patagonian toothfish and rock lobster from South Africa to the United States over a period of 15 years.

Four South Africans, Bengis, his son David Bengis, Grant Berman and Shaun Levy, together with American citizen Jeffrey Noll, were arrested in New York on Wednesday.

The indictment in the United States district court in Manhattan accused them of conspiring to smuggle goods into the US by bribing South African authorities and lying about their fish trade.

Bengis was detained pending a bail hearing on Friday.

Assistant US attorney Marcus Asner, speaking in court, called it a "case that involved hundreds of thousands of kilograms of seafood that was illegally harvested and brought to the United States".

Prosecutors said they were seeking the forfeiture of $11,5-million (about R90-million), the amount the men allegedly earned from the smuggling.

Victor Rocco, a lawyer for Bengis, declined to comment.

The indictment accused Bengis, who has dual South African and American citizenship, and his co-accused of smuggling South Coast and West Coast rock lobster and the Patagonian toothfish - also known as Chilean sea bass - from the waters off South Africa to the US.

The indictment said the scheme, which ran from at least 1987 to August 1, 2001, had been carried out through Hout Bay Fishing in Cape Town, and three affiliated US companies: Icebrand Seafoods and Associated Sea Fisheries in Manhattan, and Icebrand Seafoods Maine in Portland, Maine.

David Bengis was the president of Icebrand Maine, and Berman was financial manager of Hout Bay Fishing.

David Bengis and Levy now live in Maine, and Berman lives in San Diego. Only Arnold Bengis has appeared in court.

Last year Bengis pleaded guilty in South Africa to

28 charges relating to overfishing.

The US government accused him and the other executives of the companies of creating an elaborate scheme to illegally harvest large quantities of fish and ship it to the United States.