US restitution decision welcomed
Cape Town - The government has welcomed a New York court's decision that South Africa be paid US22.5 million (about R225.4m) by three men convicted of importing illegally-harvested rock lobster into the US.
“This is the largest restitution amount ever awarded under the Lacey Act,” the agriculture, forestry and fisheries ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Lacey Act is a US law which makes it a crime to import into the US fish, wildlife or plants taken in violation of another country's laws.
“On Friday (June 14), the United States Court ordered that Arnold Bengis, Jeffrey Noll and David Bengis pay restitution of nearly US22.5m to South Africa following extensive, unlawful harvesting of south and west coast rock lobster in South African waters,” the ministry said.
Between 1987 and 2001, Arnold Bengis, then managing director of Hout Bay Fishing Industries Pty Ltd, his son David, and Noll, who was the chairman and president of Icebrand Seafoods and Associated Sea Fisheries in Manhattan, engaged in a scheme to illegally harvest large quantities of rock lobster and export them to the US.
According to reports, all three men were South African citizens, but also held US citizenship.
The ministry said that in South Africa, the three under-reported catches, bribed fisheries' inspectors and submitted false information to the department.
“They also exploited South African workers... from the Hout Bay Fishing Industries' factory to work for low wages in their American processing factory,” it said.
In May 2001, marine and coastal management (MCM), now the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, had advised their counterparts in New York that a container of illegally-harvested fish had been shipped from Hout Bay Fishing to New York.
“This was intercepted by the American authorities, who then commenced their own investigation with extensive co-operation from MCM officials and the Scorpions.”
After being charged in the US, the three were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment and were fined US13.3m.
This followed an investigation by the Scorpions, and the successful prosecution of Hout Bay Fishing in South Africa, in April 2002, for illegal fishing.
Hout Bay Fishing paid a fine of R12m, and two of its fishing vessels were forfeited to the state for over-harvesting south and west coast rock lobster between 1987 and 2001.
The ministry welcomed last week's court ruling.
“This sets an important international precedent for over-harvesting of natural resources. It demonstrates the lengths and commitment of (the department) to pursue, no matter how long it takes, those who poach South Africa's natural resources, in this case since 2001, more than 12 years.”
The department's fisheries branch acting director general Desmond Stevens hoped the money would be paid into the Marine Living Resources Fund.
“ 1/8Where it can 3/8 be used to fight syndicates that are plundering our natural resources,” he said. - Sapa