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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Florida dealers charged with smuggling tons of queen conch
Miami, Florida - Two Miami men have been charged with conspiracy to smuggle tons of queen conch taken from Caribbean waters to customers throughout Canada and the United States, in violation of the Lacey Act, the law against illegal trading in wildlife.
Canadian officials say the smuggling operation is believed to have been responsible for illegally importing and/or exporting 119,978 kilograms (263,953 pounds), the equivalent of nearly seven fully loaded semi trailers, of queen conch meat from several Caribbean and South American countries to Canada and the United States.
Queen conch is a internationally protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and is also has been listed for protection since 1992 on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.
The CITES listing means that all imports or exports of queen conch must be accompanied by a CITES export certificate from the country of origin, or a re-export permit from a country of re-export.
Federal agents allege that from about May 2004 through November 2006, defendants Janitse Martinez, 33, and Ramon Placeres, 58, were respectively, the owners of Caribbean Conch, Inc., and Placeres & Sons Seafood, Inc., companies located in Hialeah, Florida, and engaged in the business of selling seafood products.
According to the court documents filed by the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, the defendants caused the shipment of queen conch from Haiti, Honduras, and Columbia to Canada without proper permits.
Queen conch, Strombus gigas, is a commercially valuable mollusc, and its illegal harvest has led to continued and significant declines in the species, CITES, U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials say.
In September 2003, an embargo was enacted by the CITES parties for queen conch and conch products that originated from many of the conch producing countries of the Caribbean
The embargo banned all imports of queen conch to any nation that is a signatory to CITES, as Canada and the United States are.
The defendants' smuggling activities were detected in March 2006 when a shipment of 2,100 pounds of queen conch, falsely labeled as 'Frozen Whelk meat, product of Canada' consigned to Caribbean Conch, Inc., in Hialeah was intercepted by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector at the Peace River bridge in Buffalo, New York.
The Service's National Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon conducted DNA analysis of the seafood product and confirmed it was queen conch, and not whelk as indicated on the shipping documents. Whelk is another species of marine mollusc, not indigenous to the Caribbean, sometimes used as a cheap substitute for queen conch.
However, it is not as desirable in the seafood industry, is considerably cheaper, and is not subject to Endangered Species Act or CITES protection.
Investigative efforts by Canadian and American enforcement authorities led to the simultaneous execution of search warrants in both countries and the seizure of tons of illegally traded queen conch.
The charges carry possible sentences for each defendant of up to five years of imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and a criminal fine of either $250,000, or twice the intended gain from their illegal conduct, whichever is greater.
U.S. enforcement officials from NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the investigation jointly with Canada's Wildlife Enforcement Branch. Operation Shell Game, an 18 month long investigation, involved federal wildlife officers in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Florida. Canadian and U.S. border officials also contributed to the investigation.
Court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov. Related information regarding the investigation by Environment Canada is at: www.ec.gc.ca.
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Political processes/US Lacey Act
Central America/The Caribbean