SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Manuel Garcia-Figueroa, a resident of Playa Añasco, Puerto Rico, pleaded guilty to a bill of information charging him with a felony violation of the Lacey Act for the illegal sale of sea turtle meat, the Justice Department announced today.
According to the information filed in the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, Garcia-Figueroa knowingly sold more than $350 of meat and carapaces from endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and meat from a threatened green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), while knowing that the sea turtles had been taken in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The illegal sales took place on or about Dec.11, 2009, to on or about Jan. 4, 2010, in and around Playa Añasco. The case resulted from a joint-undercover operation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement (NOAA-OLE) and the FBI.
All species of sea turtles found in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and waters adjacent to the United States are protected by the ESA. Sea turtles are long-lived and slow to reach maturity. Pressures from habitat loss, fishing operations, pollution, illegal harvesting of eggs, and poaching of adults exacerbate the extinction risk faced by these animals. In Puerto Rico, the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as “threatened” under the ESA; the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is listed as “endangered.”
The Lacey Act is the principal U.S. statute designed to reduce the role that wildlife poaching, selling, and smuggling plays in depleting protected species. Once an ESA-listed wildlife species is taken or possessed illegally, it is unlawful to “import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase” that species. A person commits a criminal violation of the Lacey Act if the illegal conduct involves the sale or purchase of wildlife with a market value in excess of $350, while knowing that the wildlife was taken in violation of or in a manner unlawful under, any underlying law, treaty, or regulation.
The waters around Puerto Rico are designated as a critical habitat for the hawksbill and the green sea turtle. The most significant nesting for the hawksbill within the U.S. occurs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each year, about 500-1,000 hawksbill nests are laid on Mona Island, Puerto Rico. The green sea turtle population has declined by 48-65 percent over the past century. Puerto Rico is also home to nesting sites for the endangered leatherback sea turtle, the largest species of turtle in the world.
The commonwealth of Puerto Rico contains six national wildlife refuges (Cabo Rojo, Culebra, Desecheo, Laguna Cartagena, Navassa Island and Vieques) and is home to 25 endangered and threatened animal species, 21 of which are found nowhere else on earth
In 2013, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico announced the formation of the Puerto Rico Environmental Crimes Task Force to investigate and prosecute environmental crimes on the island. Under the new task force, federal investigative agencies are coordinating their efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for committing serious environmental crimes.
The cases are being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Christopher Hale of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carmen Márquez and Hector Ramirez of the District of Puerto Rico. If convicted, the defendant faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 18, 2014.
For more information on marine turtles: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/