By Bill Blumenfeld

Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Valli Moosa on Tuesday praised the efforts of the Scorpions which led to the successful prosecution of Hout Bay Fishing Industries on charges of contravening the Marine Living Resources Act and corruption.

The investigation into the activities of Hout Bay Fishing Industries lasted 10 months.

Moosa said the successful prosecution of the company represented "a breakthrough" in the department's efforts to clamp down on illegal fishing.

"It is the first time that the extensive powers contained in the Marine Living Resources Act have been invoked to full effect," Moosa said.

"The Scorpion's success sends out a clear message to everyone in the fishing industry that the department will not tolerate individuals and companies that plunder our country's national resources for the purpose of self enrichment."

He said the probe into the company had been conducted by officials from the Scorpions, his department, the SA Revenue Services and the Asset Forfeiture Unit.

Hout Bay Fishing Industries (Pty) Ltd, represented by the chairman of the company, Arnold Maurice Bengis, pleaded guilty in the Wynberg Regional Court on Tuesday to 28 charges of contravening the Marine Living Resources Act.

Bengis admitted that between 1999 and 2001 the company knowingly and intentionally participated in the over-fishing of south coast rock lobster, west coast rock lobster and hake.

A company director, Colin van Schalkwyk, pleaded guilty to 301 charges of corruption relating to the bribing of fishery inspectors.

Moosa said that in terms of a plea bargain, the company would forfeit the fishing vessel, Sandalene - estimated to be worth R3-million - to the department.

The contents of a refrigerated container, worth an estimated R8-million, will also be forfeited to the department.

The discovery of the container in Cape Town harbour by officials from the department in June last year, led to the intensification of investigations into the company's activities.

The container, which was to be shipped to the United States by the company, was found to contain 1 661kg of west coast rock lobster tails, 16 189kg of south coast rock lobster tails and 2 844kg of Patagonian toothfish.

As a further compensation, R750 000 is to be paid by Hout Bay Fishing Industries to the department for the legal costs it incurred in various high court matters relating to the case.

The total penalty imposed on the company, in terms of the plea bargain, amounts to R40-million.

Van Schalkwyk received a sentence of R1-million or five years imprisonment, and a five-year-suspended sentence.

A spokesman for the attorneys acting on behalf of fishing company, Basil de Sousa, said in a statement on behalf of the business that it had settled all claims against it by the State.

Hout Bay Fishing agreed to pay an amount of R40-million in full settlement of the charges.

This included the forfeiture of two fishing vessels, the Sandelene and the Eagle Star, the contents of a container of fish products and an amount of cash.

De Sousa said the State had recognised that Bengis was not involved in the day-to-day running of the business, having lived outside South Africa for several years.

He said Bengis was never charged in his personal capacity, and co-operated fully with the State in its investigations.

According to Bengis, Hout Bay Fishing could have defended the case, at a great cost to the State, but the company chose to pay the settlement to bring speedy closure to the case and to secure the livelihoods of the workers.

Bengis said his main concern was the future of the company's 400 staff whose lives had been in limbo since it effectively ceased to operate in November last year when the Asset Forfeiture Unit seized three of its vessels and its fishing quotas were suspended.

"I hope by settling this case, we will again be granted fishing quotas by the authorities," Bengis said.

Regarding the over-fishing charge, Bengis said all established fishing companies had to contend with vastly reduced fishing quotas after 1994, when quotas were used to empower previously disadvantaged players. The company believed that to remain viable it had to find sufficient volumes to keep its fleet and on-shore facilities viable.

Bengis said a number of unsubstantiated and libelous allegations were made against him in the press and now that the plea bargain had been agreed, his legal team has been instructed to investigate claims for defamation against certain parties. - Sapa