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Convicted Hout Bay fishing magnate Arnold Bengis, his son and his former overseas business partner have been ordered by the US to pay nearly R294 million in restitution to South Africa – the largest known order of its kind.

It is also the biggest restitution order in South Africa for illegal fishing.

The US ordered that Bengis, 77, his son David, 43, and Jeffrey Noll, 62, pay the amount for exporting illegally large amounts of West Coast rock lobster from South Africa to the US.

Because the trio have paid the South African government roughly R70m in another criminal case, they will have to pay the difference of about R224m.

The order was made in the US on Friday.

Desmond Stevens, acting head of fisheries for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said the department had initially wanted more than R537m restitution, but was overjoyed with the sum the US court had ordered.

“It’s a huge amount of money. It’s South Africa’s biggest restitution in illegal fishing,” he said.

Stevens hoped the money could be put in the Marine Living Resources Fund to help fight poaching.

To access the money, the National Prosecuting Authority would have to discuss the details with US authorities.

Stevens said the order sent the right message to poachers.

The US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York said on its website that the restitution was the “largest known restitution order in a Lacey Act case in history”.

It described the Lacey Act as “a federal statute that makes it a crime to, among other things, import into the US any fish, wildlife, or plants taken in violation of state or foreign law”.

Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the order showed that those who violated another country’s environmental laws and illegally imported items to the US would have to pay back their victims.

Bengis and his son now live in London, while Noll lives in Florida.

According to the website and US court papers, Bengis was the managing director and chairman of Hout Bay Fishing Industries.

He also had control over Icebrand Foods and Associated Sea Fisheries in Manhattan.

The documents said Noll and Bengis were presidents of these two US corporations, which had imported, processed, packed and distributed fish in the US on behalf of Hout Bay Fishing Industries.

According to the court papers, from 1987 to 2001 Bengis, his son and Noll “engaged in an elaborate scheme” to harvest rock lobsters illegally in South African waters for export to the US.

As part of this scheme, the trio arranged for previously disadvantaged South African citizens, who did not have valid US permits, to work for low wages at their fish-processing facility in Portland, Maine.

In May 2001, South African authorities seized a container of unlawfully harvested fish and alerted the US that another was scheduled to arrive there.

According to the court papers, while local authorities managed to get arrest warrants for Bengis, his son and Noll, they found the trio were “beyond the reach of South African authorities”.

The US court papers said South Africa had instead focused its prosecution on Hout Bay Fishing Industries operational manager Collin van Schalkwyk and 14 fisheries inspectors who had taken bribes.

An Environmental Affairs and Tourism Ministry press release from 2002 said Van Schalkwyk pleaded guilty to 301 corruption charges and was fined R1m (or five years in jail).

The US court papers said that in April 2002 Bengis returned to South Africa and pleaded guilty to overfishing rock lobster and violating the Marine Living Resources Act.

As part of a plea agreement, Bengis, on behalf of Hout Bay Fishing Industries, paid a R12m fine, and forfeited two fishing boats and the seized container’s contents to the South African government.

In the US, Bengis, his son and Noll pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Lacey Act.

Each was sentenced to a different jail term in 2004, which they have completed. - The Cape Times