[Coral-List] CITES Guilty Plea for Trade in Black Coral

Steven Thur steven.thur at noaa.gov
Mon Mar 29 08:10:54 EDT 2010

I am posting the following on behalf of a colleague at the U.S. 
Department of Justice:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    

THURSDAY, MARCH 11, 2010                      
                                           (202) 514-2007
WWW.JUSTICE.GOV <http://WWW.USDOJ.GOV>                          
                                              TDD (202) 514-1888



        WASHINGTON---Two Taiwanese nationals pleaded guilty today in 
federal court in the U.S. Virgin Islands for conspiracy to ship 
internationally protected black coral into the United States in 
violation of federal wildlife statutes, the Department of Justice announced.

Gloria Chu and Ivan Chu of Taipei, Taiwan, each pleaded guilty to nine 
counts including conspiracy, false statements, and violations of both 
the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act.  The Lacey Act makes it a 
felony to falsely label wildlife that is intended for international 
commerce.  The Endangered Species Act is the U.S. domestic law that 
implements the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species 
of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Each of the species of black coral is 
listed in Appendix II of CITES and is subject to strict trade regulations.

        Black coral is one of the several types of precious corals that 
can be polished to a high sheen, worked into artistic sculptures and 
used in inlaid jewelry.  Use of black coral in artistry has existed for 
centuries in the Indo-Pacific and Mediterranean.  Black coral is 
typically found in deep waters, and many species have long life spans 
and are slow-growing.  One specimen was reported by scientists to be 
more than 4,200 years old with a growth rate of only 5 micrometers (one 
millionth of meter) per year.  Additionally, using deep sea 
submersibles, scientists have observed that fish and invertebrates tend 
to accumulate around the black coral colonies.  In the last few decades, 
pressures from overharvesting, due in part to the wider availability of 
scuba gear and invasive species, have threatened this group of coral. 

According to plea agreements filed with the court, the Chus ran a 
business named Peng Chia Enterprise Co. Ltd. that supplied materials 
including black coral to customers outside of Taiwan for jewelry design 
and manufacture.  At times prior to 2007, the Chus were issued CITES 
export permits by the Taiwanese government in order to ship black coral 
overseas.  Since 2007, however, they have been unable to obtain permits 
because they are unable to produce a legitimate certificate of origin.

Both Chus admitted that in order to supply a company based in the Virgin 
Islands with black coral, they would falsely label shipments in order to 
conceal the coral from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.  The 
conspiracy included travel to a warehouse in mainland China to choose 
coral from a Chinese supplier and the use of an intermediary to ship the 
black coral from Hong Kong to Company X in St. Thomas.  The scheme took 
place for at least two years prior to the customs seizure of an August 
2009 shipment destined for Company X.

On Aug. 19, 2009, Peng Chia sent a shipment comprised of 10 boxes of 
black coral that were labeled "plastic of craft work."  A U.S. Customs' 
Contraband Enforcement Team flagged the shipment as suspicious and 
contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  As 
a result, USFWS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and 
Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened a joint investigation, 
"Operation Black Gold," that led to the arrest of the Chus in January 
2010.  Analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National 
Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., revealed that shipment from the 
Chus contained internationally- protected black coral.  Today, the Chus 
admitted that from 2007 to 2009, they sent more than $194,000 worth of 
black coral to Company X.

"Trafficking in protected species like black coral violates 
international and domestic law and threatens the existence of that 
important resource," said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General 
for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources 
Division.  "We will continue to enforce environmental and natural 
resource laws so that future generations can continue to enjoy these 
important marine resources."

"This should send a strong and clear message to those individuals 
foreign and domestic, who deliberately break our environmental laws, 
that their conduct will not be tolerated.  Those who illegally plunder 
nature's resources in favor of profits will be brought to justice," said 
James Gale, Special Agent in Charge of the Fish and Wildlife Services's 
Southeast Region.  "The cooperative efforts show the commitment of all 
agencies involved to protect coral and the natural resources against the 
illegal international trade, we are all stewards."

"Stopping the illicit trade and depletion of protected species such as 
black coral is critical to preserving a healthy and viable marine 
environment," said U.S. Attorney Ronald W. Sharpe for the District of 
the U.S. Virgin Islands.  "The U.S. Attorney's Office will continue to 
work closely with its domestic and international law enforcement 
partners to detect, investigate and prosecute those who plunder and 
traffic in endangered species for their selfish gain."

According to the plea agreements, Ivan Chu has agreed to serve 30 months 
in prison and pay a $12,500 fine.  Gloria Chu has agreed to serve 20 
months in prison and pay a $12,500 fine.  Both defendants would also be 
prohibited from shipping coral and other wildlife products to the United 
States for a three-year period after their release from prison.  A 
sentencing date has been set for June 23, 2010.

The case was investigated by agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with 
support from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and 
Border Protection.  The case is being prosecuted by the Justice 
Department's Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney's Office 
for the District of the Virgin Islands.


Steven Thur, Ph.D.
Coral Reef Conservation Program
Office of Ocean & Coastal Resource Management
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
N/OCM, SSMC4, Rm. 10404
1305 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

email:  steven.thur at noaa.gov
phone:  301.563.1147
fax:  	301.713.4387

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