A US court has ordered the 81-year-old to pay South Africa $37-million (about R483-million) for catching thousands of tons of rock lobster over 14 years.
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 US”, Manhattan District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced him on Wednesday to more than four years’ imprisonment.
Kaplan ordered an immediate arrest warrant for Bengis, now living in Israel. State attorney Kiersten Fletcher said 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 wanted $100-million in restitution but it welcomed Kaplan’s judgment.
“We are fairly satisfied with the $37-million, but we hope [Bengis] won’t appeal it, so the payment will be effected as soon as possible,” said the department’s 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.
Former department head of fisheries Horst Kleinschmidt, who testified in the District Court in 2004 about Bengis’s fishing activities, quoted research that suggested free-falling rock lobster stocks “immediately stabilised” after his operation was stopped.
He said yesterday 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 he was a major source of that,” he said.
His fleet of trawlers overfished more than 2200t of West Coast rock lobster between 1987 and 2000. The $37-million was the proceeds of just one year, plus interest, said an Ocean and Land Resources Assessment Consultants report.
South Africa will be the first foreign government to be compensated under a 117-year-old US law, the Lacey Act, which regulates imports of protected species.
Department lawyer Barnabas Xulu said it took his team six months to prepare for the case and hailed the ruling as “ground-breaking”, but conceded there could still be challenges ahead.
During arguments in court, Kaplan told Bengis’s attorney, Eric Creizman, his client “rearranged” his assets, amounting to $25-million, into a Channel Islands fund so the US government could not reach it.