August 23, 2012


Last Thursday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York concluded that three men owe $54,883,550 in restitution to the South African government after illegally harvesting rock lobsters off its coast for years.

The director of International Ocean Conservation for the Pew Environment Group, Karen Sack, explained, “This is the largest ever restitution awarded by a US court under the historic Lacey Act, one of the oldest American conservation laws that protects plants and wildlife by establishing civil and criminal penalties for a wide array of violations, and most notably prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold.”

A United States magistrate judge in Manhattan made the most recent finding, the case will next go to a Judge at the U.S. District Court for affirmation.

Mission Blue caught up with Karen Sack to discuss the threats posed by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, the Lacey Act, and the significance of the District Court decision.

Can you speak on the threats that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing pose to marine species populations and ecosystems?

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU fishing) is a major threat to the well-being of the world’s fisheries. Some estimates suggest that IUU fishing causes annual financial losses of up to $23.5 billion worldwide and accounts for up to one fifth of all marine fish caught globally. IUU fishers are free-riders taking advantage of a situation characterized by patchy laws and regulations, inadequate communication or surveillance, and poor intelligence sharing between authorities.  This means that these ‘pirate’ fishers can make short-term profits without significant fear of prosecution or a care for the sustainability of the fisheries they are exploiting.

IUU fishing poses major threats to marine species and ecosystems in numerous ways.  It threatens marine species and ecosystems because illegal fishers often use destructive fishing gear. For example, vessels in the Mediterranean and Pacific have recently been cited for illegal fishing for using driftnets that stretched for up to 30 miles, despite international and national laws prohibiting the use of driftnets in those fisheries.  IUU fishing can also result in extremely high levels of by-catch (capture of non-target species, including threatened and endangered species), significant over-fishing of target species, and in many cases damage to fragile ecosystems like seamounts, coral reefs and other environments.

In areas such as West Africa, it has been assessed that up to 40 percent of fish taken from the sea falls into the IUU category. In other words, the total estimated catch is as much as 40 percent higher than the catch that’s reported to fisheries authorities.  So, IUU fishing undermines the ability of scientists and fisheries managers to set catch limits that reflect what is really going on in the fishery, and ensure a healthy, sustainable fishery.

What role does the Lacey Act play in preventing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing?

The Lacey Act, which was signed into law in 1900, enables the U.S. government to prosecute American citizens who have engaged in IUU fishing by empowering the government to levy civil and criminal penalties for trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold.

The real threat of such penalties – which the government is clearly showing through the Bengis case court order – should help prevent some IUU fishing in the future because it puts the perpetrators on notice that should they be caught, they will pay for their crimes. That said, however, the U.S. and the rest of the world need to adopt much stronger measures to combat IUU fishing – including ratifying a new international agreement called the Port State Measures Agreement which, once it enters into force, will empower enforcement officials to refuse port entry for those vessels suspected of engaging in IUU fishing.  Regional fisheries management bodies and the countries that flag large fishing vessels (anything over 24 meters in length (100 gross tons)) should also require that they have IMO numbers (like car vehicle identification numbers) that cannot be changed for the life of the vessel; and, just like all other large commercial ships, real-time satellite tracking so that authorities can see where they are and what they are doing at all times.

Can you explain briefly why the Pew Environment Group publicly applauded the U.S. District Courts decision last Thursday, to have 3 men pay the South African government restitution in the amount of $54,883,550?

Pew applauded the court decision because we recognize that illegal fishing poses an immediate and severe threat to healthy, sustainable fisheries and marine ecosystems. Pew believes this court order makes a strong statement that the U.S. will not tolerate IUU fishing that in any way touches U.S. nationals, markets or waters.  If what this court has found is upheld, then what this case shows is that the perpetrators of illegal fisheries crimes will be pursued; that the long arm of the law will reach them, and that they should think twice before engaging in IUU fishing.

Why is this finding in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York so significant?

The finding is significant for a few reasons. First, it is the largest-ever restitution ordered under the Lacey Act, which is a major milestone for an act that took effect 112 years ago. Second, the order is a good faith attempt to provide real and accurate compensation to South Africa for the blatant theft of a marine resource from its waters. The court arrived at the $54.9 million restitution figure by factoring in the amount of rock lobster proven to have been illegally harvested along with the amount that was likely illegally harvested, based on very strong evidence about the defendants’ illegal fishing operation. This sends a message to illegal fishers that even if you are getting away with IUU fishing now, you may have to pay later for past crimes when you are eventually caught.

Lastly, the finding is significant because it shows that the U.S. government takes IUU fishing seriously and will use the full force of the law to punish those engaged in it.

What can people do to help stop illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing? 

Consumers, retailers, fish markets and concerned citizens need to keep asking where their fish is coming from and if they are not satisfied with the answer, they should not buy it. Large retail conglomerates, in particular, need to put procurement policies in place that ensure that they are only sourcing sustainably caught fish.  They need to put the time and effort into tracing and verifying the source of the seafood that they plan to sell so that they can assure their customers that they are not purchasing IUU-caught fish.


(The above is an unedited Q&A between Mera McGrew and Karen Sack)

Case information: Case 1:03-cr-00308-LAK Document 206 Filed 08/16/12

Top photo: Pew Environmental Group


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