WASHINGTON—Gunther Wenzek, a German national, pleaded guilty today before District Judge Anna J. Brown, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, to one count of smuggling coral into the United States at the port of Portland, Ore., the Justice Department announced.
A grand jury in Portland indicted Wenzek in July 2008. Law enforcement officials arrested Wenzek in February 2009 when he entered the United States at Dulles airport outside of Washington, D.C., en route to a pet exposition in Orlando, Fla. Wenzek has been detained under a third party custodian release agreement since February. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 5, 2010 at 1:30 p.m. PT.
Wenzek owns a company named CoraPet, based in Essen, Germany that sells various coral products to retailers in the United States. Customs agents seized two full containers of coral shipped by Wenzek to a customer in Portland. These two shipments made up a total of over 40 tons of coral.
The corals seized have been identified as corals from the scientific order Scleractinia, genera Porites, Acropora, and Pocillopora, common to Philippine reefs. Due to the threat of extinction, stony corals, such as those seized in this case are protected by international law. Philippine law specifically forbids exports of all coral. Moreover, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) bars importation of the coral Wenzek tried to import to customers in the United States, without filling out proper customs forms or permits.
The removal of dead coral and live rock is of major concern for coral reefs, including those reefs protecting coastal communities from storms. These corals are the fundamental building blocks of the coral reef ecosystem. Unsustainable collection of coral frequently results in the loss of important nursery areas, feeding grounds, refuge for fish and invertebrates, and increased erosion of reef systems.
"This guilty plea is one example of the United States’ coordinated efforts, including the work of multiple law enforcement agencies, to protect coral reefs and marine ecosystems both domestically and internationally," said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. "Preventing the further decline of coral reefs through strong enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws is paramount in preserving marine environments and fisheries."
"We will not allow criminals to profit from the illegal devastation of the world’s coral reefs," said Kent Robinson, Acting United States Attorney for the District of Oregon. "The assistance of the Philippine government was absolutely critical to the success of this case, and we thank the government and people of the Philippines for their vital help in protecting marine resources."
"This activity has an immeasurable negative impact on our shrinking resources in the world," said Paul Chang, Special Agent in Charge of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Region, based in Portland.
"Our national and the international marine resources are important to all of us and this is a fine example of federal agencies working together to protect those resources," said Special Agent in Charge Vicki Nomura, National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Law Enforcement.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney, Dwight Holton from the District of Oregon and Senior Trial Attorney J. Ronald Sutcliffe of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, with assistance from the Southern District of Florida, AUSA, Tom Watts-FitzGerald.