SA men reeled into New York court on fish smuggling charges

The head of companies that allegedly smuggled Chilean sea bass and rock lobsters from South Africa to the United States for at least 15 years pleaded innocent on Wednesday to smuggling charges.

An indictment in the US District Court in Manhattan accused Arnold Maurice Bengis and four other men of conspiring to smuggle goods into the United States 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 pounds of seafood that was illegally harvested and brought to the United States.”

Prosecutors said they were seeking the forfeiture of $11,5-million, the amount the defendants allegedly earned from the smuggling.

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

The indictment accused Bengis, a South African and US national, and his co-defendants 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 United States.

The four other defendants in the case were named as Bengis’ brother, 34-year-old David Bengis, who lives in Maine; Jeffrey Noll (49) a US citizen; Grant Berman (33) a South African citizen living in San Diego; and Shaun Levy (38) a South African national living in Portland, Maine. None of the four have been arraigned yet, and only Arnold Bengis appeared in court.

Bengis (67) operated his fish trade as chairman of Hout Bay Fishing Industries, headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa, and as an executive with control over the finances of Icebrand Seafoods Inc. and Associated Sea Fisheries, two New York companies, the indictment alleged.
The phone numbers of the businesses were listed as disconnected on Wednesday.

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.

The scheme was unearthed after South African authorities seized and opened a container of illegally harvested and processed fish in May 2001, prosecutors said.

The defendants then allegedly altered or destroyed inventory documents, hid the fish on boats from South African authorities and paid bribes to South African fishing inspectors to get around fishing laws, according to the indictment.

In one instance, the government alleged, they tried to dodge US authorities by diverting an illegal shipment destined for New York to Singapore and Hong Kong.

Many of the schemes were designed to evade South African laws written to protect deepwater species by limiting the quantity that can be caught each fishing season.

According to the indictment, the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources estimated that the quantity of Chilean sea bass harvested through illegal means from 1996 through 1999 was more than twice what was harvested legally.

As a result, the population of the Chilean sea bass species has declined, the commission estimates. Besides the conspiracy charge, the defendants also were charged with 20 separate violations of the a US law prohibiting the illegal transport of wildlife. If convicted, they each could face up to five years in prison on each of 21 counts. - Sapa-AP

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