Nova Scotia

Lobster pound owner fined $100K for illegally selling First Nations catch

The owner of a lobster pound in Nova Scotia and his company were fined a total of $100,000 Monday for illegally selling lobster harvested under First Nations food, social and ceremonial licences.

Shen Re Zheng sentenced Monday for offence stemming from DFO sting operation in 2017

Lobster pound owner Sheng Ren Zheng enters the courthouse in Digby, N.S., in January. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The owner of a lobster pound in Nova Scotia and his company were fined a total of $100,000 Monday for illegally selling lobster harvested by First Nations.

Shen Ren Zheng was caught shipping lobsters to China in 2017 that were harvested by a member of the Sipekne'katik band under multiple food, social and ceremonial licences in St. Marys Bay in southwest Nova Scotia. The licence conditions prevent the sale of the catch.

In handing down the sentence, provincial court judge Tim Landry said the offence was "intentional illegal act" and rejected Zheng's claim that it was an accident.

"The accused in his defence at trial made mention that mistakes were made either by incompetent employees or language barriers," Landry said in provincial court in Digby, N.S.

"The evidence in my view overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was an intentional act. That fact in my view is an aggravating feature. The potential for lucrative profits obviously existed for the accused in this case.

"The penalty cannot simply be the cost of doing business. The penalty has to be significant."

In an October 2017 sting operation, federal fisheries officers pulled Sipekne'katik traps fished by Robert Syliboy from St. Marys Bay, placed microchips on 73 lobsters, returned the traps and then traced the tagged lobster to the nearby Guang Da pound in the community of Belliveaus Cove.

Three days later, officers followed a shipment from the plant containing 15 of those lobsters to the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. The shipment was stopped and seized before being loaded onto a flight for China.

The shipment was valued at $50,000 and carried the necessary paperwork from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Syliboy was not charged in the case.

Guang Da International in Belliveaus Cove, N.S. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC)

Commercial fishermen in the area had started complaining in 2017 that the food, social and ceremonial fishery was being used by some as cloak for commercial fishing operations.

This fall, Sipekne'katik launched a self-regulated moderate livelihood fishery in St. Marys Bay. The band maintains it had the right to do so under a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision, but many commercial fishermen in the area are opposed.

On Monday, federal Crown prosecutor Mark Stares said the case was not about an independent rights-based fishery.

Zheng was not present in court for sentencing. He listened by phone from Ontario where he is living. Zheng and his company Guang Da International were each fined $50,000. He has two years to pay.

He and his company have declared bankruptcy and his sole source of income at the moment is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, the court was told.

"At the present time I do not have a job. I do not have the ability to pay for the fine," Zheng told the court through a Mandarin interpreter.

"I am in a very severe financial situation. I do not have enough money to live on at the present time," he said.

Freshly caught lobsters are pictured. (CBC)

Landry said deterrence was the most important factor in sentencing.

"In my view, the ability to pay a fine of both accused is only one factor the court needs to consider."

Zheng was also banned from the fishing industry in Nova Scotia for two months and put under strict conditions for two years if he returns to the business. He can only deal with commercial catches licensed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and must provide detailed records of any business dealing to the DFO office in Meteghan.

Landy said the fact neither Zheng nor his company have any prior record was a mitigating factor.

On Monday, Landry ordered the truck, trailer and entire shipment seized at the airport forfeited to the Crown.

At a sentencing hearing last month, Stares had asked for a $75,000 fine for both Zheng and his company.

"This was an ongoing commercial scheme that was, in reality, a ruse to cover up black market dealings," Stares told Landry. "The international export of black market fish can jeopardize Canadians ability to legally do so."

The fine and industry ban, he said in November, is needed to deter others and conserve lobster stocks.