Lobster thieves feel the pinch after US ruling

A landmark ruling in a New York court this week sent out a strong message against the plunder of South Africa’s wildlife resources when it ordered that three men—blamed for the collapse of local rock lobster fisheries—must pay this country up to R380-million in damages for the illegal harvesting of rock lobster.

The exact restitution amount will be established by a US district court later this year.

The R380-million is the estimated cost to restore South Africa’s lobster fisheries to their previous condition without overexploitation.

The US Court of Appeals ruled that South Africa was deprived of a compensatory property interest, namely the “opportunity to sell those illegally captured lobsters at market price and retain the proceeds”.

The two South Africans—Arnold Bengis, the managing director of Hout Bay Fishing Industries, and his brother, David Bengis—and their American partner, Jeffrey Noll, pleaded guilty in 2004 in the US to charges of illegally harvesting and smuggling out rock lobsters and fish. This came after an investigation by the now-defunct Scorpions had alerted US authorities to their activities in 2001.

They were convicted and fined R13-million, but the US judge ruled that South Africa could not claim restitution. This ruling was reversed on Tuesday.

Marcus Asner, a former federal prosecutor who represented the US government in seeking restitution on South Africa’s behalf, told the Wall Street Journal that the case sets an important precedent.

“It gives countries a huge incentive to cooperate with US law enforcement in [prosecuting] illegal wildlife and plant harvesting — because [the countries] may be entitled to be compensated for the damage done by the bad guys,” he said.

Marius Diemont, an environmental and fishing expert from law firm Webber Wentzel who assisted the South African interest in the case, said the ruling was a landmark. It was the first time a court had determined that a person could be held liable for damages for overharvesting a resource.

The now disbanded Hout Bay Fishing Industries was also prosecuted in South Africa and had to pay a fine of R12-million, while the South African government confiscated two of the company’s fishing vessels.

Environmentalists blame the company for almost wiping out South Africa’s rock lobster population between 1987 and 2001.

Marine consultants Feike Natural Resource Management Advisers said in a report that southern Cape rock lobsters had declined by 65%, largely due to overfishing by Hout Bay Fishing Industries.

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