Nova Scotia

Lobster caught under Indigenous licences sold by accident, businessman tells judge

Sheng Ren Zheng, who's accused of illegally selling lobster caught by Indigenous fishermen under food, social and ceremonial licences, made his closing statements in a Digby, N.S., courtroom on Thursday.

Sheng Ren Zheng accused of illegally selling lobster caught under food, social and ceremonial licences

Sheng Ren Zheng enters the Digby, N.S., courthouse earlier this week. He and his defunct lobster pound are charged with illegally selling lobster caught under Indigenous food, social a ceremonial fishing licences. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Security camera footage shows crates of lobster being loaded onto a trailer by a forklift.

The operation is businesslike and matter of fact.

But is what unfolded Oct. 16, 2017, at a Nova Scotia lobster pound an illegal act or an innocent mistake? 

That's the question facing Nova Scotia provincial court Judge Tim Landry following the conclusion of a lengthy trial in Digby, N.S.

The security footage from Guang Da International — some 216 hours — was entered as evidence at the trial of Chinese businessman Sheng Ren Zheng, who is accused of illegally selling lobster caught by Indigenous fishermen.

Speaking through an interpreter, plant owner Zheng proclaimed his innocence on Thursday during his closing arguments.

"My business is legit," said Zheng, who represented himself. "I did not violate any regulations and I did not ask my staff to violate any regulations." 

Guang Da International in Belliveaus Cove, N.S., was at the centre of a Department of Fisheries and Oceans investigation into illegal lobster sales. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC)

Both Zheng and his now defunct company, Guang Da International, were charged after a federal fishery officer intercepted a shipment of lobster at the Halifax airport in October 2017.

Zheng said it was an accident that lobster caught out of season by Indigenous fishermen was shipped for sale to China from his lobster pound in Belliveau's Cove.

He blamed a language barrier caused by his poor English, saying workers mistakenly packed lobster being held for Indigenous fishermen into a commercial shipment.

"It was not right. The workers mistook the Indigenous lobster as commercial lobsters. I argue this is understandable. Everyone makes mistakes," he said.

Zheng questions justice process

Fifteen lobsters caught under communal Aboriginal fishing licences by the Sipekne'katik Band in nearby St. Mary's Bay were traced to his pound and then to the Halifax airport, where they were discovered in a shipment destined for China.

In a midnight operation, federal Fisheries officers had attached microchips to the lobsters while still in the traps.

The food, social and ceremonial license conditions prohibit the sale of the catch. Various shipping documents indicating the lobster had been sold to an Asian market were seized.

Zheng argued he was being treated unfairly.

"I question the fairness and justice of this process," he said.

He said two shipments left his pound that day. One went to the Halifax airport, where it was intercepted and seized by officers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The other shipment went to Riverside Lobster in Meteghan.

When asked by CBC News if Zheng had been singled out, DFO responded that its investigations are initiated solely on the basis of suspected or reported violations of the rules.

The department added it does not comment about ongoing investigations.

Riverside Lobster did not respond to a request for comment.

Zheng said if he was trying to sell Indigenous lobster, he would have deleted the security camera video and gotten rid of a holding book where he recorded landings from Indigenous fishermen. 

'Involved from start to finish'

Federal crown prosecutor Mark Stares dismissed Zheng's version, saying a company document valued Indigenous lobster at $4.50 a pound.

"Mr. Zheng was involved from start to finish. There was intent. This was no accident," he told the judge.

Stares also noted the case has nothing to do with the landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling that recognizes an Indigenous right to fish for a moderate living.

"As a non-Aboriginal, Mr. Zheng may not claim shelter under Aboriginal rights." he said. "In its simplest form, non-commercial lobster was sold."

Landry will deliver a decision on April 16.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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