Aquarium-Business Owner Admits to Trafficking Protected Corals

This photo shows Ricordea polyps on reef seized from Aristides Sanchez in Puerto Rico. (Courthouse News Service via U.S. Department of Justice)

(CN) – The owner of an aquarium business in Puerto Rico pleaded guilty Wednesday to harvesting protected reef creatures and selling them off island.

Aristides Sanchez ran his saltwater aquarium business, Wonders of the Reef Aquarium, in his hometown of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Prosecutors say native Puerto Rican marine species accounted for a large part of Sanchez’s business, and that he 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 an organism from the genus Ricordea,” the Justice Department said in a statement Wednesday.

Knowns as “rics,” “polyps” or “mushrooms” in the industry, these organisms are of particular interest to aquarium owners because they glow under the UV lights that are typically used in high-end saltwater aquariums.

This reef substrate with Ricordea polyps was seized from a shipment Aristides Sanchez sent in March 2015. (Courthouse News Service via U.S. Department of Justice)

Prosecutors say 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, but that Sanchez made off-island sales of Ricordea and other reef creatures that he gathered in snorkeling expeditions with an associate.

“Because Ricordea are attached to the reef substrate, Sanchez would utilize a chisel to break off the animals, and in doing so, take chunks of the reef with him,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Sanchez also bought Ricordea from other sources, according to the government’s bill of information.

To deter governmental inspection authorities, Sanchez falsely labeled various shipments as “pet supplies,” “aquarium supplies,” “LED lights,” or similar inanimate objects on shipping labels and invoices. 

Prosecutors say he occasionally used a fake name as well.

“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,” the Justice Department says.

It calculates the value of his Ricordea shipments at between $800,000 and $1.2 million from Jan. 7, 2013, through March 16, 2016.

Sanchez pleaded guilty in Puerto Rico to two felony violations of the federal Lacey Act, He will be sentenced on Dec. 20, 2017.

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