Oct. 29, 2003 – For St. Thomas commercial fishermen Rick and Jason Berry, $550 worth of catch ended up costing them upwards of $36,000 in the British Virgin Islands.
The two brothers were ordered on Wednesday to pay a total of $11,000 in fines and to forfeit their boat, valued at $25,000, after pleading guilty to fishing in B.V.I. waters without a valid license and registration.
And that does not include lawyer fees, ferry tickets and lost income during the months that their boat, Forever Fishing, has been impounded.
Under B.V.I. law, each of the men could have been fined up to half a million dollars. Magistrate Gail Charles said little as she pronounced the sentences on Wednesday afternoon in a small courtroom on Tortola.
The Berrys and their parents have become fixtures in her courtroom ever since the brothers were arrested more than a year ago. Granted bail, they were careful never to miss a court date.
The brothers were arrested on Oct. 15, 2002, at West End as they prepared to unload 200 pounds of pot fish, which they were going to sell to the B.V.I. Fishing Complex. "What they were doing was pursuing a legitimate livelihood," their lawyer, Hayden St. Clair-Douglas, said as he pled for leniency on behalf of his clients last Friday.
St. Clair-Douglas pointed out that the Berrys had work permits and customs clearance documents and made the point that they could not have obtained such paperwork "without first having a fishing license." In July, Rick Berry testified that he had paid a business associate who resides on St. Thomas but holds citizenship in the B.V.I. $250 to renew Forever Fishing's B.V.I. license in late September 2002 but that it had not yet been obtained at the time of the brothers' arrest.
St. Clair-Douglas had asked for a "minimal" fine. In the end, Charles fined Rick Berry $7,000 and Jason Berry $4,000 for fishing without a license. On the charge of fishing without registration, she found them guilty, reprimanded them and then discharged them.
If they don't pay their fines by Dec. 15, she said, they will spend six months in prison.
And she ordered their boat forfeited to the crown.
Black Pearl case delayed by prosecution
Meanwhile, the owner and captain of the St. Thomas fishing vessel Black Pearl will have to wait until mid-November to hear the evidence prosecutors have against them in another illegal fishing case that strained relations between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Jimmy Estraca, the Black Pearl captain, and Scott Niddrie, the boat's owner, appeared in court on Tortola on Wednesday only to be told that the lawyer who will be prosecuting them had another, more important, court appearance that morning. They must now return on Nov. 17.
The Black Pearl was seized last June 13 at the North Drop during a tournament sponsored by the U.S. Virgin Islands Gamefishing Club. After several weeks of negotiations, prosecutors agreed in July to allow the boat to be released on $15,000 bond. Estraca and Niddrie are facing criminal charges of fishing without a license and registration. If convicted, as was the case with the Berry brothers, they could each face a fine of up to $500,000.
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