Nova Scotia

Crown argues businessman illegally sold lobster caught under Aboriginal licence

Sheng Ren Zheng and his defunct company, Guang Da International of Belliveaus Cove N.S., were charged after a federal fishery officer intercepted a shipment of lobster at the Halifax airport in October 2017.

Accused Sheng Ren Zheng will make his closing arguments on Thursday

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)

A federal Crown lawyer made closing arguments Tuesday at the trial of a Chinese businessman accused of illegally selling lobster caught under Aboriginal communal fishing licences.

Sheng Ren Zheng and his defunct company, Guang Da International of Belliveaus Cove, N.S., were charged after a federal fishery officer intercepted a shipment of lobster at the Halifax airport in October 2017.

"There was a concern amongst the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with what was happening to lobster taken under [Indigenous food, social and ceremonial licences]," Crown prosecutor Mark Stares told provincial court Judge Tim Landry.

Zheng's trial comes amid widespread concerns in southwestern Nova Scotia that the Indigenous food, social and ceremonial fishery is being used as a cloak for commercial operations while the season is closed for commercial fishermen.

Under federal regulations, fish caught under these licences cannot be sold.

Stares said there was no "legitimate source" of lobster in the shipment, which was caught before the commercial season opened in Lobster Fishing Area 34, off southwestern Nova Scotia.

Sheng Ren Zheng enters the Digby courthouse on Tuesday. He's charged with illegally selling lobster caught under communal Aboriginal fishing licences. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The Crown introduced evidence that the lobster was caught under Indigenous food, social and ceremonial licences held by members of Nova Scotia's Sipekne'katik First Nation.

Various shipping documents indicating the lobster had been sold to an Asian market were seized.

"The Crown does not believe it was an accident the... lobster ended up at the airport," Stares said. 

The operation was part of what federal officials called Project Magnet, a large investigation into illegal lobster sales, primarily in Nova Scotia.

In a midnight sting operation in October 2017, a fishery officer pulled lobster from pots in St. Mary's Bay, placed microchip tags on them and returned the lobster back to the pots. 

Authorities tracked the lobsters and three days later, intercepted 15 of the tagged lobsters among a shipment of 5,000 pounds seized at the Halifax airport.

Charges were laid against Zheng after a shipment of lobster was intercepted by DFO at the Halifax airport in 2017. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC)

Stares said there was no evidence band members were paid by Zheng, but a tally form seized at the Guang Da facility contained entries indicating a value of $4.50 a pound for lobster caught by Indigenous fishermen.

The case has taken several weeks because the proceedings were translated into Mandarin for Zheng, who is representing himself.

The case was adjourned until Thursday, when Zheng is expected to make his closing arguments.

Former plant manager Pierre Boissonault, right, spoke on behalf of Sheng Ren Zheng, left, outside the courtroom, saying a language barrier contributed to the lobsters being packed up to be shipped to China. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Speaking on behalf of Zheng after proceedings wrapped up on Tuesday, former plant manager Pierre Boissonault said the presence of lobster caught under an Aboriginal communal fishing licence at the airport was the result of a mix-up at the pound.

"There was a communication problem, [a] language barrier, which would have caused these mistakes being done while packing lobsters at the time of the shipping to China," said Boissonnault, with Zheng by his side.

Boissonnault said another issue is that the Supreme Court has recognized the right of Indigenous to fish for a moderate living.

But since the landmark 1999 ruling, the term "moderate living" has never been legally defined in a regulated Indigenous fishery in Nova Scotia.

Other investigations ongoing

While Zheng and his company appear to be the only ones to have cases before the courts, the federal investigation did not end with the Guang Da bust.

Inspections and seizures, including the removal of lobster from a Yarmouth restaurant, have since taken place, and not just in Nova Scotia.

On Oct. 16, officers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducted an inspection at a fish processing plant in Shediac, N.B.

But the department would not say where those matters stand.

"As a matter of policy, Fisheries and Oceans Canada does not comment on the status of ongoing investigations," spokesperson Debra Buott-Matheson said in an email statement.

"Investigations are initiated solely on the basis of suspected or reported violations of fisheries law or their regulations."

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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