The man who destroyed the West Coast rock lobster

Arnold Bengis infront of the branch for Oceans and Coasts of the Department of Invironmental Affairs at the Waterfront. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER .20/03/2013. © SUNDAY TIMES
Arnold Bengis infront of the branch for Oceans and Coasts of the Department of Invironmental Affairs at the Waterfront. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER .20/03/2013. © SUNDAY TIMES
By: Aron Hyman And Philani Nombembe

It took only 14 years for Cape Town businessman Arnold Bengis to decimate one of South Africa’s most treasured marine species.

Now he is being made to pay by a US court‚ which has ordered the 81-year-old to cough up $37-million (about R483-million) for pillaging thousands of tons of rock lobster.

The restitution amount replaces a $21-million payment Bengis agreed to make to South Africa in 2004. Because he paid only $1.25-million and placed the rest “out of reach of the United States”‚ Manhattan District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan also sentenced him on Wednesday to more than four years’ imprisonment.

Kaplan ordered an immediate arrest warrant for Bengis‚ now living in Israel‚ and state attorney Kiersten Fletcher told the court US authorities would try to extradite him.

Said the judge: “There is value to Mr Bengis understanding that … there may be a knock at the door and a pair of handcuffs in his future.”

The Department of Agriculture‚ Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) wanted $100-million in restitution for the American citizen’s activities but it welcomed Kaplan’s judgment.

“We are fairly satisfied with the $37-million‚ but we do hope (Bengis) won’t appeal it‚ so the payment will be effected as soon as possible‚” said DAFF acting chief director for monitoring control and surveillance‚ Thembalethu Vico.

Although Bengis’s activities stopped 17 years ago‚ damage to the coastal ecosystem was still depriving fishing communities of access to resources‚ he said.

“The damage is also socio-economic. It is quite vast‚ and one should understand that it was caused over more than 14 years‚ hence we wanted to at least recover the resources he may have gained so that we can send out a message to poachers.”

Former DAFF head of fisheries Horst Kleinschmidt‚ who testified in the District Court in 2004 about Bengis’s fishing activities‚ quoted research that suggested that free-falling rock lobster stocks “immediately stabilised” after his operation was stopped.

Speaking to The Times on Thursday‚ he said that when officials discovered the extent of Bengis’s plunder “it made nonsense of any scientific inquiry” into environmental factors behind declining fish stocks.

“He hired lots of little fishermen with boats to supply him with contraband fish stocks. The decline is evident in the total allowable catch figures‚ which the scientists set lower and lower. Once he was caught‚ we realised that he was a major source of that‚” he said.

“Before that we kept on looking for environmental things. We kept on looking for why lobster on the West Coast was migrating south. But then we found the real culprit.”

South Africa will be the first foreign government in the world to be compensated under a 117-year-old US law‚ the Lacey Act‚ which regulates imports of protected species.

DAFF lawyer Barnabas Xulu said it took his team six months to prepare for the case. He hailed the ruling as “ground-breaking”.

He said the judgment also tackled the “hiding of money in tax havens”. But he conceded there could still be challenges ahead. “Can you get the same cooperation and efficiency in other countries which are trading with South Africa?”

During arguments in court‚ Kaplan told Bengis’s attorney‚ Eric Creizman‚ that his client “rearranged” his assets‚ amounting to $25-million‚ into a Channel Islands fund so the US government could not reach it.

“Instead of writing a cheque for $21 million‚ the money winds up in Jersey. The trusts get all rearranged. He is now paying you ... to try to defend what happened and to pass the money to his heirs and to leave the victims of what he did and what he pleaded guilty to doing high and dry‚” said Kaplan.

The impact on fish stocks of the operation headed by Bengis and involving numerous fishermen‚ fisheries and government officials was “incomprehensible”‚ according to environmental assessments submitted as evidence in court cases in South Africa and the US.

His fleet of trawlers overfished more than 2 200 tons of West Coast rock lobster between 1987 and 2000‚ and the $37-million was the proceeds of just one year‚ plus interest‚ according to an Ocean and Land Resources Assessment Consultants report.

The victim statement submitted on behalf of South Africa by international law firm Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer said Bengis over-harvested between 90% and 180% of the legal catch.

The statement added: “We now know that the West Coast rock lobster is down to 6% of its original population. There is no mystery as to the cause of this 94% decrease. Arnold Bengis — the largest‚ most prolific and most egregious harvester in South Africa — destroyed the West Coast rock lobster population to an extent unknown‚ and perhaps unimaginable.”


Source: TMG Digital.


Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.