By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE 17 Dominican poachers caught plundering Bahamian waters of nearly 3,000 pounds of fisheries last week were fined for their actions yesterday afternoon.
Chief Magistrate Joyann Ferguson-Pratt fined the 17 poachers $23,000 in total for raiding the country’s waters of some 2,943 pounds of fish last Thursday.
Fifteen of the 17 poachers were collectively fined $13,000 for the seven crimes they committed. Failure to pay the fines would result in three months in prison for those 15, the chief magistrate said.
The captain of the crew, Hector Prichardo, and another crew member, Ruddy Cross, both of whom are repeat offenders, were both fined $10,000 for being caught with 2,154 pounds of undersized crawfish, with a six month custodial sentence in default.
By comparison, their other 15 compatriots received a $5,000 fine or a three month custodial sentence in default for that offence.
Additionally, the chief magistrate ordered that those two poachers have their sentences in default of the seven fines doubled, meaning the pair could serve six months in prison.
Another member of the group, 28-year-old Elbison Tabenas, who admitted to being in possession of 34 rounds of shotgun ammunition he intended to supply to others, received a nine month custodial sentence for the crime, in addition to the $13,000 fine he and the other 15 were hit with.
However, as all of the sentences are ordered to run concurrently, Tabenas will only serve nine months in prison.
The Dominican vessel they used to commit the criminal act has been ordered to be confiscated, The Tribune understands.
Howard Thompson Jr, the attorney for the 17 Dominican poachers, confirmed to The Tribune that it is very likely that the fines will be paid by the poachers’ respective families back in the Dominican Republic.
However, he said his clients have already been fingerprinted and photographed, and will be placed on a stop list. He said the likelihood is that if they ever commit those or similar offences again, “the book will be thrown at them”.
Mr Thompson also confirmed to this newspaper that Paul McWeeney, the Bahamas’ honorary consul to the Dominican Republic (DR), gave evidence under oath that the DR’s government has undertaken to pay for all repatriation expenses.
Otherwise, Mr Thompson, who has represented Dominican poachers in the past, said he felt that the chief magistrate’s decision was “very fair and just given the circumstances.”
“The reason I harp on the circumstances is that 15 out of the 17 fishermen were first time offenders,” he explained. “The other two (Prichardo and Cross) have committed the offence in the Bahamas before. And so their sentence was different from those who were first time offenders.
“The magistrate also took into consideration that giving these huge, exorbitant fines has never been paid for by the persons. And so what you had was that these persons were just being sent to prison, which is a huge burden on the system in that we had to house a bunch of these Dominicans, feed them three times a day, and so on and so forth.
“So the likelihood is that these fines are going to be paid from these persons’ families back in the Dominican Republic. Those persons will be placed on a stop list. They’ve been fingerprinted, photographed, and the likelihood is if they ever commit the offences again the book will be thrown at them.”
Mr Thompson also said he went to “great lengths” to point out to the chief magistrate that his clients are from “poor, unprivileged backgrounds”, and that the “real criminals” were the people who employed them.
“I would have said to the magistrate that the real criminals are the owners of these vessels,” he told The Tribune. “And that our government should take some sort of action to bring the owners of these vessels to justice.”
On Monday, the 17 Dominican poachers, ranging in age from 23 to 53, all entered guilty pleas to raiding the country’s seas of 2,943 pounds of fish last Thursday.
Of that number, 2,154 pounds were undersized crawfish; 772 pounds were undersized Nassau Grouper; six pounds each of egg bearing crawfish and Caribbean reef shark; and five pounds of undersized stone crab claws.
The 17 poachers further admitted to being caught with two spear guns, which are illegal fishing apparatus’ in the Bahamas.
Their arraignments came just days after a 76-ft Dominican vessel was spotted in the Cochinos Banks, Ragged Island by a US aircraft last Thursday.
According to reports, after the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and the US Coast Guard were alerted, RBDF officials said HMBS Cascarilla under the command of Senior Lieutenant Samantha Hart were dispatched to the area.
The Dominican vessel, which contained a large quantity of fishery products, and its occupants were detained by RBDF marines and were subsequently taken to New Providence.
After pleading guilty to the offence, one of the Dominicans indicated that they are all fathers trying to provide for their children. Another asked Chief Magistrate Joyann Ferguson-Pratt to “have mercy” upon them “in the name of God”.
Another promised the chief magistrate that if allowed to leave the country, they would never return.
In August of last year, 46 Dominican poachers, who were also represented by Mr Thompson, were collectively fined $2.3m, or $53,000 each, for plundering Bahamian waters of some 33,000 pounds of fisheries the month before.
Radhamas Hernandez, their captain, was further sentenced to 18 months for possession of an unlicensed, black pistol grip 12-gauge shotgun and one year for possession of nine rounds of ammunition, to run concurrently.
Another poacher was fined $100,000 due to that incident being his second conviction for poaching in Bahamian waters.
However, 45 of those poachers eventually had their one-year prison sentences reduced to six months by the Court of Appeal. The basis for the shortening of their sentences was because the sentencing magistrate did not take into account any of the mitigating factors, nor their guilty pleas.
Hernandez’ sentence was not interfered with, however.
In June 2018, four Dominican fishermen, who were caught poaching in the Great Bahama Bank, were fined a collective $30,000 for their actions. Three of them were fined $20,000 or eight months in prison, and the fourth was fined $10,000 or four months in prison.