Fighting with the Feds
Henson McNab went to prison as an energetic, confident business man in his late forties. On Roatan he was seen by many as an example of a community leader and benefactor to local causes. In the US he became known as a convicted ringleader of a lobster smuggling operation and served seven years and one month of an eight-year-one-month sentence and paid a $800 thousand fine. While the US federal prison system didn’t break him, it definitely changed him.
Before the affair began, McNab operated the largest lobster fishing operation in the Western Caribbean. McNab had 800 people on 30 boats worked for him in 2001. Now his Caribbean Fisheries company has shrunk to 22 boats and 300 people. It all started in 1999, when agents of the National Marine Fisheries Service, acting on a tip, seized one of McNab’s lobster shipments in Alabama. They found that about three percent of the lobsters were undersized and about seven percent either contained lobster eggs, or showed signs that the body parts on which eggs are found had been clipped off. McNab suspects that the tip given to the US authorities came from one of his competitors.
McNab was prosecuted by Southern Alabama US Attorney’s Office with the assistance of the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section. While other, bigger lobster smuggling cases have been settled out of court, United States vs. McNab became the biggest lobster smuggling case tried in court.
While originally McNab’s case was also to be treated as a civil case and settled, the charges resurfaced in 2001. McNab says that his US buyers, without his knowledge or permission, had used his company initials (C.D.C.) on boxes exporting additional shipments of undersize lobster. “They shipped them [the undersized lobster] to Panama, then to Canada,” says McNab.
The payment from the 1999 shipments of lobster McNab received was considered as money laundering; and because the lobster sale involved a seller, broker and buyer, charges of conspiracy were also filed. In total, McNab was prosecuted on 31 felony charges. The federal prosecutors used a technicality to maximize charges against McNab, and the maximum sentence passed against McNab were brought based not on undersized lobster, but on the fact that the lobster shipments were packed in plastic sleeves- argued as a violation of Honduran law and US’s Lacey Act- a 1900 law prohibiting the transportation of illegally captured, or prohibited animals.
Also convicted were two US importers and a broker who bought McNab’s illegal lobster: Abner Schoenwetter and Robert Blandford from Florida and Diane Huang of New Jersey. While the judge gave two out of three the low end of the sentence, McNab received the high end of the sentencing guideline. McNab began his long ordeal traveling between jails and federal prisons across the southern United States. The harshness of his punishment brought regional media attention and he attempted to file for clemency with President George W. Bush.
McNab is angry and feels he was treated unjustly by the justice system. He feels he didn’t receive right legal advice from his own lawyers and was betrayed by his American buyers. He feels that he was set as an example by the US government as someone who tries to fight for his rights and is punished for doing so. Originally, McNab thought that he could fight the federal government. What he says he didn’t realize is that he was fighting a prosecution machine with a conviction rate of 97%.
Today, life of a Honduran lobster isn’t much easier than it was seven years before. According to Steven Guillen, board member of APESCA (Honduran Fishermen Association) and a McNab’s employee, the undersized lobster caught in Honduras by Honduran fishermen are still shipped to the US. The export happens indirectly, often via El Salvador. Lobster with tails less than five-and-a-half inches long are often chopped, making detection of the undersize lobsters impossible. “Mr. McNab’s case has had no impact on the practices of the Honduran fishermen,” says Guillen. [/private]