WASHINGTON—Gunther Wenzek, a German national, was sentenced today to serve three years on probation and pay a criminal penalty of over $35,000 by Judge Anna J. Brown of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon for smuggling coral into the Port of Portland, Ore., the Justice Department announced.
The penalty included a criminal fine of $16,510, nearly $10,000 in restitution to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a community service payment of $8,890.
Wenzek owns a company named CoraPet, based in Essen, Germany, that sells various coral products to retailers in the United States. The investigation was launched in 2007 after Wenzek tried to ship a container loaded with fragments of endangered coral from reefs off the Philippine coast to Portland. After this initial shipment, agents subsequently seized two full containers of endangered coral shipped by Wenzek to a customer in Portland. These two shipments made up a total of over 40 tons of coral.
A grand jury indicted Wenzek in July of 2008. He pleaded guilty on Oct. 14, 2009, to a smuggling charge for illegally importing merchandise contrary to law. Wenzek admitted that he knowingly failed to declare the coral as wildlife. Wildlife declarations for imports are essential to ensuring that endangered and threatened species are not being illegally imported into the United States.
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 bars importation of the coral Wenzek tried to import to customers in the United States, without a permit.
"Protection of coral reefs both domestically and internationally is critically important for the health of our marine environment," said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. "We will continue to use law enforcement resources at our disposal to investigate and prosecute those who smuggle endangered species like coral."
"Reefs are essential resources for maintaining fisheries, for biodiversity, for habitat and for addressing climate change. Importers need to know that we will defend these resources and prosecute criminal violators, and we stand ready to pursue these cases worldwide," said Kent Robinson, Acting U.S. 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."
"With many of the world’s coral reefs increasingly threatened by climate change, stopping the illegal harvest and trade of coral is more important than ever," said Paul Chang, Special Agent in Charge of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Region, based in Portland, Ore. "The cooperation of law enforcement agents in this case sends a message to would-be smugglers that this assault on a precious resource will not be tolerated."
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 was prosecuted by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.