Damage control to rock lobster fishery needed after years of poaching

Rebuilding South Africa’s ravaged rock-lobster stock will require “dedicated scientific capacity” and a compliance authority that can stop the continuing plunder, says a former fisheries boss.

The Sentinel reported last week that an American court had reduced a restitution order on convicted Hout Bay Fishing Industries owner Arnold Bengis from $37 million (R544 million) to
$7 million (R100 million).

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which had initially hoped for a restitution order of $100 million (more than R1.4 billion), was disappointed with the ruling, saying Bengis had improperly benefited from years of poaching (“Bengis restitution order reduction a shock to DAFF, loss to country,” Sentinel, October 12).

Between 1987 and 2001, Bengis, 82, and his co-conspirators, his son, David, and his former business partner, Jeffrey Noll, were in-
volved in poaching huge quan-
tities of rock lobster and then exporting them illegally to America.

The men received jail terms
and were ordered to pay restitution.

Now Horst Kleinschmidt, the former head of Marine and Coastal Management who testified in the Bengis case, has weighed in on the court’s decision,

“The damage Bengis and his co-conspirators did to rock lobster is hard to establish. To re-build this fishery, would require dedicated scientific capacity and then a compliance authority that ensures on-going plunder does not continue,” he said.

“From what I know of the US case, Bengis’s ill-gotten gains were taken into account when the initial amount for restitution was set. For this sum to now be reduced to a fraction of what was previously ordered by the court is outrageous. It is outrageous not least because much evidence in the past centred on how the money Bengis made was placed in jurisdictions where it was unlikely to be traced or repatriated.”

He suggested Bengis must have spent millions of dollars in pursuing his innocence, “at times with legal teams from four countries”.

“I was present when the then Scorpions considered his plea-bargain in Pretoria: three on our side and 15 lawyers on his side. For years he tried to discredit me, first through the courts in the US and then in South Africa, simply because I was the whistle-blower. His efforts in both jurisdictions ultimately failed.

“I was seven years into my retirement when his legal pursuit in SA finally came to naught.”

Mr Kleinschmidt said it was “hard to say” whether $7.1 million could make up for the environmental damage that had been done.

“Firstly, the fisheries department should have established a plan with costings for restituting that which environmentally was affected through his doings. The South African government should have played a pro-active and far more aggressive role in this sorry tale.

“After the initial prosecution in South Africa, there was no political or other will to pursue the matter. Will the $7.1m go to the fisheries section? And if it does end up in the Marine Living Resources Fund, will it be used for the purpose it is intended for? I have my doubts in response to both questions. Maybe the relevant portfolio committee will at last come and ask the right questions.”

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund South Africa (WWF-SA) has welcomed a high court ruling on the sustainability of West Coast rock lobster.

WWF-SA had taken DAFF to court, accusing it of mismanaging the fishery.

WWF-SA claimed DAFF threatened the sustainability of the species by setting the 2017/18 total allowable catch (TAC) quota at 1 924 tons, more than double the 790 tons recommended by a panel of experts, including DAFF’s own scientists, outside scientific experts, industry participants and NGOs.

The court held that DAFF failed to uphold its legal mandate of conserving marine resources. The court also found that when determining the TAC, the deputy director-general had failed to take into account the best available scientific evidence as required in terms of international law

“The sad reality is that the West Coast rock lobster resource has declined dramatically over the last 50 years as a result of overfishing to the point where it is approximately only 1.9% of its original, pre-fished stock size. At such low levels, the risk of West Coast rock lobster becoming commercially extinct is extremely high with dire socio-economic and ecological knock-on effects,” WWF-SA said in a statement.

The organisation now expects DAFF to set the next season’s TAC at a level that will allow this resource to recover.