Canadian and U.S. Wildlife Officers Break-Up Major Endangered Species Smuggling Ring - Record-Breaking 27 Metric Tonnes of Meat Confiscated



    MONTREAL, Sept. 26 /CNW Telbec/ - Environment Canada's Wildlife
Enforcement Division along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries officers have
dismantled a major smuggling organization of queen conch meat, an
internationally protected endangered species. The smuggling operation is
believed to have been responsible for illegally importing and/or exporting
119,978 kilograms (263,953 lbs, the equivalent of nearly seven fully loaded
semi trailers) of queen conch (Strombus gigas) meat from several Caribbean and
South American countries to Canada and the United States.
    Between November and December 2006, over 27 metric tonnes of falsely
declared queen conch meat were detained by Environment Canada wildlife
officers: in Montréal, 9,886 kilograms (21,750 lbs.), and Halifax,
17,672 kilograms (38,880 lbs.) - the largest ever confiscations of smuggled
endangered species in this country. As well, 955 kilograms (2,100 lbs.) were
seized by U.S. officials in Buffalo, NY in March 2006.
    According to documents filed in Canadian and American courts in September
2007, it is alleged that between 2004 and 2006, 119,978 kilograms of protected
queen conch meat from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras and
Colombia was shipped to Canada using false descriptions to avoid detection by
officials. Once in Canada, the meat was either sold on the local market or
re-packaged - sometimes as 'whelk meat', a non-endangered cold water species -
from where it was shipped to the United States. Charges have been laid in
Canada and the U.S. against persons and companies located in Florida, British
Columbia and Nova Scotia. The investigation is continuing.
    Twelve charges under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation
of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA) were laid against
Pacific Marine Union Corp. of Vancouver, BC and its CEO, Zamorro Gabriel
Shone, also of Vancouver, BC. First appearance in Vancouver Provincial Court
for both accused is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on October 10, 2007. No plea has
been entered pending first appearance in court. One charge for unlawfully
importing as well as one for exporting queen conch contrary to the Wild Animal
and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade
Act (WAPPRIITA) have also been laid against Placeres and Sons Seafood Inc.,
Ramon Placeres and Janitse Martinez. A first court date has been set for
November 6, 2007 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Under Canadian law, those charged
are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
    Based on average weight per specimen, the meat of between 798,000 and
1.05 million individual conchs were illegally imported into and/or exported
from Canada. DNA testing was used to positively identify the detained
shipments from 2006 as being queen conch.
    Queen conch, also known as pink conch, is protected under the Convention
on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Operation Shell Game, an 18-month long investigation, involved federal
wildlife officers in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and
Florida. Canadian and U.S. border officials also contributed to the
investigation.
    CITES is an international agreement that regulates the trade of certain
wild animal and plant species, including their parts, organs and derived
products. In Canada, CITES is implemented by the Wild Animal and Plant
Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.
Under that Act, offences are punishable upon conviction to a maximum fine of
$300,000 or imprisonment up to five years, or both. In the United States, the
Lacey Act provides for penalties upon conviction of up to five years
imprisonment and fines up to twice the profit made, in this case over
$1 million U.S. dollars.
    Environment Canada and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are responsible
for enforcing each country's federal laws concerning wildlife trade including
endangered and invasive species as well as protecting species at risk,
migratory birds, and areas protected for wildlife. To report the smuggling or
trafficking of endangered species or any infraction of federal wildlife law,
the public is invited to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at
(404) 679-7057 or Environment Canada's Wildlife Enforcement Division toll free
at 1-800-463-4311.


    (Egalement offert en français)


    

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                                 BACKGROUNDER
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        CANADIAN AND UNITED STATES WILDLIFE OFFICERS DISMANTLE MAJOR
                   ENDANGERED SPECIES SMUGGLING OPERATION

    Since March 2006, Wildlife Officers employed by Environment Canada's
Enforcement Branch located in Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto and
Vancouver, in close cooperation with Special Agents employed by the United
States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Miami, Florida, and United States
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been working diligently
to unravel a complex wildlife smuggling scheme alleged to have taken large
quantities of queen conch, an endangered shellfish, out of Caribbean waters
and unlawfully transported it to customers in Canada and the United States.

    THE QUEEN CONCH

    Queen conch (Strombus gigas), pronounced "conk" and also known as pink
conch, is a large mollusc indigenous to the waters of 36 Caribbean countries
and is widely sought after as a seafood delicacy. It lives in waters 10 to
30 metres in depth and plays an important role in the sea-bottom ecosystem by
eliminating dead seagrass and other detritus. The maximum longevity of the
queen conch is 20 to 30 years. Sexual maturity is reached after approximately
five years; reproduction does not occur where there are less than
56 individuals per hectare and levels of at least 200 individuals per hectare
are required to maintain local population.
    It is an endangered species subject to world-wide controls placed upon its
import and export by the 172 member countries of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The
CITES is implemented by the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of
International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA) in Canada, and by the
Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States.
    Controls consist of a permit system wherein importers or exporters of
endangered species must, prior to the import or export occurring, obtain an
import or export permit that must accompany the shipment. The amount of trade
allowed is based on extensive scientific analysis of the endangered species in
question.
    Queen conch has been protected by CITES since 1992 following a collapse in
wild populations largely as a result of over fishing in the 1980s and 1990s.
Limited trade in queen conch is allowed and all imports or exports must be
accompanied by a CITES export permit from the country of origin or CITES
re-export permit from the country of re-export. This control measure ensures
that trade will not threaten the survival of the species. Under CITES, species
are protected according to a classification system. Wildlife species listed in
Appendix II of CITES (such as queen conch) are species that are not
necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade is
strictly regulated. As an Appendix II species, queen conch shipments crossing
borders require CITES permits from the country of export or re-export.
    In September, 2003 an embargo was put in place by CITES for queen conch
and conch products that originated from many of the conch producing countries
in the Caribbean in an effort to help stem significant declines in the
species' population.

    THE SMUGGLING ACTIVITIES

    The alleged smuggling activities came to light in March 2006, when a
United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) inspector stationed at
Buffalo, New York, examined a truck load of seafood destined for Florida. The
inspector discovered 2,100 pounds of what was suspected to be queen conch meat
on board the vehicle. The queen conch meat was in packages marked "Fresh
Frozen-Peeled Conch Meat", however these were contained in outer packaging
marked differently as "Frozen Whelk Meat, Product of Canada".
    "Whelk" (Buccinum undatum), is also a large mollusc indigenous to the
mid-Atlantic but is not an endangered species, therefore not subject to CITES
controls. It is not native to Caribbean waters and is a cheap but undesirable
substitute for queen conch.
    The USFWS inspector noted that no Canadian CITES Re-Export Permit
accompanied the queen conch discovered in the truck. Failure to ensure the
appropriate CITES Export Permit accompanies an endangered species such as
queen conch becomes and offence in Canada under Section 6(2) of WAPPRIITA and
in the United States under the ESA.
    The USFWS inspector obtained samples of the "Whelk" meat suspected to be
queen conch for the purposes of DNA analysis and detained the remainder of the
load. The samples were submitted the following day to the USFWS's Forensic
Laboratory located in Ashland, Oregon. Scientific testing showed the meat to
indeed be queen conch.
    During the following months, inspections of shellfish meat imports from
the Caribbean were organized to ensure compliance with the law; in cases where
DNA analysis resulted in infractions being uncovered, the goods were detained
and investigations were launched.
    Two inspections resulted in the interception of queen conch meat: one in
November 2006 in Montréal of 9886 kilograms (21,750 lbs.) and one in Halifax
consisting of 17,672 kilograms (38,880 lbs.) in December 2006.
    Assistance was obtained from the Canada Border Services Agency, the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce - NOAA
Fisheries Enforcement Division, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Florida
State Fish and Wildlife Authorities as well as the Trent University Natural
Resources DNA Profiling and Forensics Centre in Peterborough, Ontario. Search
warrants were obtained and executed concurrently in Toronto, Vancouver and
Miami. In addition to state of the art DNA forensic technologies being used,
modern intelligence gathering and charting methodologies were employed and
video/audio statements obtained.

    THE ALLEGATIONS

    As a result of those investigations, Environment Canada Wildlife
Enforcement and USFWS Officers allege that:

    - Between September 29, 2003 and December 31, 2006, about 119,978
      kilograms (263,593 lbs., street value of more than $2.6 million U.S.
      dollars) of queen conch had been taken from Caribbean waters and
      unlawfully imported to the United States and Canada from the Dominican
      Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Columbia. An analysis prepared by
      Environment Canada and Florida State Fish and Wildlife experts
      identified that this weight represents between 798,000 and 1.05 million
      conch - a staggering number when dealing with an endangered species. Of
      this nearly 120 metric tonnes that are documented, approximately
      27 tonnes were intercepted in Canada and one tonne in the United
      States. Investigators have learned from documents obtained during
      search warrants carried out in 2007 that an additional 92 tonnes of
      illegally imported and/or exported queen conch were sold on the open
      market in Canada and the U.S. between 2004 and 2006. Although charges
      have been laid, investigation is continuing. While charges have been
      laid, under Canadian law, those charged are presumed innocent until
      proven guilty.

    - According to the information filed in this matter, other court
      documents, and a statement of facts presented by the U.S. Attorney in
      Court in the Southern Judicial District of Florida, Janitse Martinez,
      president of Caribbean Conch Inc. and Ramon Placeres, owner of Placeres
      and Sons Seafood Inc., both located in Hialeah, Florida, conspired to
      violate the Lacey Act for the purpose of unlawfully introducing CITES
      and ESA protected queen conch into the United States and Canada for
      commercial sale. The information filed against the two defendants
      alleges that between May 1, 2004 through November 2006 with known and
      unknown coconspirators the defendants caused queen conch to be imported
      into Canada and the United States without proper permits and in some
      cases falsely labeled as a cold water species of whelk. The charges in
      the information are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed
      innocent until and unless proven guilty.

    - One charge for unlawfully importing as well as one for exporting queen
      conch contrary to the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation
      of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA) have also
      been laid against Placeres and Sons Seafood Inc., Ramon Placeres and
      Janitse Martinez. A first court date has been set for November 6, 2007
      in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While charges have been laid, those charged
      are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

    - Twelve charges under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and
      Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA)
      were laid against Pacific Marine Union Corp. of Vancouver, BC and its
      CEO, Zamorro Gabriel Shone, also of Vancouver, BC. First appearance in
      Vancouver Provincial Court for both accused is scheduled for 9:00 a.m.
      on October 10, 2007. No plea has been entered pending first appearance
      in court. Under Canadian law, those charged are presumed innocent until
      proven guilty.

    THE ITINERARY

    - The major routes utilized by the companies and individuals involved
      were:

      - From the Dominican Republic by sea and rail to Toronto, then on to
        Miami using road transport,

      - From Haiti to Toronto by air then on to Miami using road transport,

      - From Colombia to Halifax by sea then on to Montreal by rail, and

      - From Montreal to Halifax by rail with and intended destination of
        Honduras.

    - Information obtained under oath indicates that one shipment of queen
      conch, while still in the Caribbean, was exchanged for a quantity of
      narcotics.

    - Considerable quantities of queen conch imported into Canada and the
      United States were consumed in domestic markets.

    - The investigation is ongoing.
    

    The approximately 28,500 kg (63,000 lbs) of queen conch currently under
detention by wildlife officials in Canada and the United States, are subject
to forfeiture under WAPPRIITA and the ESA. These quantities of conch are now
believed to be in excess of three or four years old and are unfit for human
consumption.
    In Canada, offences under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and
Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act are punishable upon
conviction to a maximum fine of $300,000 or imprisonment up to five years, or
both. In the United States, the Lacey Act makes it unlawful for any person to
import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate
or foreign commerce any fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported or
sold, in violation of any law or regulation of any State, Federal or foreign
law. The Lacey Act provides for penalties of up to five years imprisonment or
a fine of up to twice the gain or loss of the relevant conduct or both upon
conviction. In this case the fine could exceed $1,000,000 US.




For further information:

For further information: Sheldon Jordan, Director, Quebec Region
Environment Canada, Wildlife Enforcement Division, (418) 649-6124; James Gale,
Special Agent in Charge, Southeast Region, United States Fish and Wildlife
Service, (404) 679-7057; Tom MacKenzie, Chief, Media Relations, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, (404) 679-7291; Environment Canada: Media Relations: 1 888
908-8008, (819) 934-8008; FOR FUTHER INFORMATION ON CITES: www.cites.ca;
www.cites.org; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Enforcement:
www.fws.gov/le/; Environment Canada's Enforcement Branch, Wildlife
Enforcement; http://www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/enforce/index_e.cfm (English);
http://www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/enforce/index_f.cfm (français)


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