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.