Florida Keys Residents Plead Guilty to Illegally Trafficking in Marine Life
On July 11, 2016, two residents of the Florida Keys pled guilty to illegally trafficking in marine life.
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Tracey Dunn, Assistant Director, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, and David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Miami Area, made the announcement.
Leah Gould, 51, and Phillip Gould, 57, of Big Pine Key, Florida, pled guilty to conspiring with others to commit certain offenses against the United States, that is conspiracy to transport, sell, receive, acquire, and purchase any fish and wildlife, that is juvenile bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo), with a fair market value in excess of $350.00, and attempt to do the same, knowing that said fish were taken, possessed, transported, sold, and intended to be sold in violation of the laws and regulations of the State of Florida, in violation of Title 16, United States Code, Sections 3372(a)(2)(A), 3372(a)(4)and 3373(d)(1) and (2), all in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371. The defendants each face possible sentences of up to 5 years’ imprisonment, a term of supervised release of up to three years, and a criminal fine of up to $250,000. United States District Judge Jose E. Martinez, who accepted the guilty pleas, set sentencing for the defendants for October 3, 2016 at 2:30 p.m., in the Sidney M. Aronovitz Federal Courthouse in Key West.
According to the court record, including the indictment, a joint factual statement, and the defendants’ admissions during court hearings, at the relevant times, Leah Gould and Phillip Gould were residents of Monroe County, Florida and owned and operated Florida Keys Marine Life, LLC. (FKML), a Florida corporation with its principal place of business on Big Pine Key, Florida. FKML was engaged in the wholesale marketing of ornamental fish and live rock. Over the period extending from at May 2012 through August 2012, the Goulds engaged in the purchase and sale of bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo) through FKML. The Goulds negotiated for and received the sharks from an unlicensed harvester in the Florida Keys. At no time did the harvester, directly or as a third party contractor, possess or hold any State of Florida special activities license to collect, harvest, or transport any shark species, nor did he possess and hold a valid federal annual vessel permit for sharks issued pursuant to 50 C.F.R. 635.4 to harvest, collect, or take shark species as required by the laws of the State of Florida.
The Indictment also charged that the harvested bonnethead sharks were taken from the waters of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, and subsequently shipped by the Goulds in interstate commerce by a variety of means, including rental truck and as commercial air cargo.
The Indictment and joint factual statement, in a series of “overt acts”, describes multiple instances when specific numbers of sharks were harvested, the transfer of the sharks from the harvester to the FKML commercial marine life facility on Big Pine Key, and specific payments received by the harvested for sharks sold in interstate commerce. The Goulds also admitted that in August 2012, Phillip Gould personally transported four bonnethead sharks by rental truck to St. Louis, Missouri where they were transferred to the St. Louis Zoo, in a sale set up by a middle-man located in Las Vegas, Nevada, and that in November 2012, Leah Gould negotiated the sale of four bonnethead sharks in interstate commerce to a customer located in Atlanta, Georgia. In Court, the government revealed that the transaction had been recorded by government agents.
Mr. Ferrer commended the joint investigative efforts of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement and the local and Atlanta-area Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement who participated in the long-term investigation into the illegal harvesting and sale of marine life resources from the Florida Keys known as Operation Rock Bottom, and noted the assistance of Refuge Officers from the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air Marine Branch in the development of the case. This matter is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Antonia Barnes.