Former Owner of Aquarium Business Sentenced to Prison for Illicit Trafficking of Protected Reef Creatures

The Justice Department announced today that a Puerto Rico man was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison for felony violations of the Lacey Act that involved the trafficking and false labeling of protected reef creatures as part of an effort to subvert Puerto Rican laws designed to protect coral reef organisms.

In 2013 through 2016, Aristides Sanchez, of Arecibo, was the owner of the Arecibo-based saltwater aquarium business, Wonders of the Reef Aquarium. A large part of the business was devoted to the sale of native Puerto Rican marine species that are popular in the saltwater aquarium trade.

Sanchez sent live specimens to customers in the mainland United States and foreign countries by commercial courier services. One of the most popular items that Sanchez sent off-island was a coral-like organism from the genus Ricordea. These animals are known as “rics,” “polyps,” or “mushrooms” in the aquarium industry. Members of the genus form part of the reef structure and spend their adult lives fastened in place to the reef. These animals are colorful in natural light, but what makes them particularly interesting to aquarium owners is that they “glow” under the UV lights that are typically used in high-end saltwater aquariums.

It is illegal to harvest Ricordea, zoanthids, and anemones in Puerto Rico if the specimens are going to be sent off-island or otherwise sold commercially, nor is there a permit available to do so. Sanchez personally collected some of the Ricordea and other reef creatures that he sold off-island. Because Ricordea are attached to the reef substrate, Sanchez would utilize a hammer and chisel to break off the animals, and in doing so, take chunks of the reef with him. At other times, Sanchez would purchase the Ricordea from other sources, knowing or suspecting that the specimens had been harvested illegally.

In order to cover up the nature of his shipments and to avoid detection from governmental inspection authorities, Sanchez would falsely label each shipment. Sanchez would refer to living marine organisms as “pet supplies,” “aquarium supplies,” “LED lights,” or similar inanimate objects on shipping labels and invoices. At times, he used a fake name to cover his actions.

From January 2013 to March 2016, Sanchez sent or caused to be sent at least 130 shipments of falsely labeled marine species that were illegally harvested in the waters of Puerto Rico. While there is some variation in the price of Ricordea depending on coloration, size, and other factors, the retail value of Ricordea shipped by Sanchez typically ranges from $25 to $50 per item. From on or about Jan. 7, 2013, through on or about March 16, 2016, the retail value of the falsely labeled and/or unlawfully harvested marine invertebrates shipped personally by Sanchez or on his behalf with his knowledge, was at least $800,000.

In addition to the prison time, Sanchez was sentenced to a supervised release term of two years and 120 hours of community service. The court also banned Sanchez from collecting or procuring marine life, shipping marine life off-island and scuba diving and snorkeling in Puerto Rico.

To view pictures of the seized coral, click here: https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/992481/download.

This case was investigated as part of Operation Rock Bottom and Operation Borinquen Chisel by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with support from the USFWS Inspectors. The case is being prosecuted by Christopher L. Hale of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmen Marquez of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.

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Author: February 22, 2021

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