PE mom in court accused of illegally exporting shark, octopus

GLAMOROUS suburban mother- of-three Sharmilla van Heerden cut a lonely figure in the dock yesterday when she appeared in the Port Elizabeth's Magistrate's Court in connection with illegally exporting more than 95 tons of shark and octopus, worth millions, to Australia.

The case is believed to be the first of its kind in the region.

Van Heerden, 36, of Gerdine Street, Summerstrand, who is believed to be from a prominent Port Elizabeth family, appeared calm when magistrate Abigail Beeton warned her to appear again in court tomorrow in connection with the eight charges dating back to 2011 and involving more than R7-million.

She and her husband, Marius, who run the popular Fisherman Fresh in the harbour, are well known in the fishing industry.

The case is the result of an almost year- long investigation by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

Van Heerden was not asked to plead. However her lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, said she would plead not guilty.

"It's a pity that the case was brought before court at this time when permits have to be issued. She employs many people and their lives depend on the outcome of this case. The chance of a speedy trial date is not possible," Griebenow said.

DAFF investigating officer Inspector Luyanda Mzalisi was tight-lipped about the merits of the case, saying only that although there had been previous incidents of people in the region contravening the Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998, this was the first time a person had appeared in court for exporting shark without a permit.

Officials close to the case said they were unable to say what types of sharks were involved because the fish had been processed.

Shark and octopus are believed to be a delicacy in Australia and in great demand.

According to the Fisherman Fresh website, Van Heerden is the chief executive and her husband is the managing director. The website refers to "their" six fishing vessels.

A Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office search showed Van Heerden was linked to two companies – as sole director of Fisherman Fresh CC and as a co-director with her husband of Fisherman Fresh Pty Ltd.

Fisherman Fresh CC has been jointly charged with Van Heerden. Her husband has not been implicated.

The state alleges that Van Heerden unlawfully exported several thousand kilograms of processed shark fillet and octopus to Australia without an export permit between 2011 and last year.

A provisional charge sheet gave a detailed account of how the processed shark and octopus was allegedly placed in containers and shipped to Australia.

Officials said their investigation into Van Heerden's business activities led them to believe she had not declared to the South African Revenue Service when the consignments were shipped to Australia.

Of the six containers allegedly illegally exported, only one was recovered. The rest had already reached their destination.

One fisherman, who did not want to be named, said Van Heerden was a ruthless businesswoman.

Another fisherman said her husband, however, was "a nice guy" and a hard-working businessman who "runs a tight ship".

Popular fishing industry figure Boya Chetty said: "I've heard a little bit about the incident here and there but I do not want to comment. It's a touchy one."

In the court case, the charges listing the date, alleged exported quantities and value are:

♦On February 11 2011, 11280kg of shark worth R661502;

♦On May 23 2011, 12300kg worth R762196;

♦On November 30 2011, 12030kg worth R957017;

♦On January 20 2012, 12305kg worth R1017280;

♦On July 8 2012, 11835kg worth R1068493;

♦October 12 2012, 10410kg worth R637114;

♦On January 7 last year, 12000kg worth R928031; and

♦On April 14, 13877kg of shark/ octopus, valued at R1001310.

DAFF official Merle van Diemel said from Pretoria the department was not able to comment on the case yesterday because the managers were in a meeting.

Earlier this month, Van Heerden was outspoken about the allocation of long-term fishing rights, which saw established fishermen, including Marius, lose their permits. The couple was part of a protest group of small-scale fishermen who gathered at the Port Elizabeth harbour days after their commercial fishing rights were revoked on December 31.

They had applied to renew their licences for seven years but did not make the cut on the DAFF list.

During the protest gathering, an upset Van Heerden described the allocation of long-term fishing rights as unlawful and said the department had "basically wiped out commercial handline fishermen in Port Elizabeth and replaced them with unknown fishermen".

Marius represented the city's fishermen at a meeting in Cape Town between representatives from the fishing industry and DAFF officials.

At the meeting, all established fishermen were granted permission to apply for exemptions pending the outcome of an appeal process against the loss of their fishing rights. – Additional reporting by Cindy Preller