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A former resident of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, pleaded guilty today to export smuggling and two felony violations of the Lacey Act for collecting, falsely labeling, and shipping protected marine invertebrate species as part of an effort to subvert Puerto Rican law designed to protect corals and other reef species, the Department of Justice announced.

Raymond Michael Torres Ramos, 45, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Raúl M. Arias-Marxuach in the District of Puerto Rico, and will be sentenced on Nov. 13, 2020.

“The illegal harvest and trafficking of reef species is a significant problem that contributes to habitat destruction, coastal erosion, and the decline of coral ecosystems worldwide,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.  “The Department of Justice and its partners will continue to investigate and prosecute those who violate our environmental laws for illicit commercial gain.”  

“Prosecutions like this one are important because, by holding companies and businessmen accountable for the harm they cause to the ocean’s ecosystem, we do our part to protect our natural resources,” said U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the District of Puerto Rico.  “Puerto Rico is surrounded by the beauty of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and those who intentionally damage our reefs must be held accountable for their criminal conduct.”

“Protection of our nation’s marine life resources is of utmost importance in this world. Marine life species such as Florida Ricordea and live rock that they are attached to are part of a complex marine reef ecosystem that is unique and fragile,” said David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge of for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement.  “Cooperative investigations such as this too often expose these resources are illegally harvested and trafficked domestically and internationally.  Just as these species were hammered and chiseled from their natural reef environment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partner agencies will continue to hammer and chisel away at those who traffic and profit from such unlawful activities.”

“This case highlights the great investigative collaboration in dismantling a concerted effort to profit from the destruction of the delicate marine ecosystem in Puerto Rico,” said Tracy A. Dunn, Assistant Director in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement, Southeast Division.  “NOAA’s main mission is the protection of living marine resources and habitat for future generations.  The agency’s enforcement personnel take this responsibility seriously and work diligently to detect and collect evidence against those who would seek to profit from the over-harvest and trade in illegally taken marine species.  I applaud the coordinated efforts of NOAA, USFWS, and DOJ to successfully bring Mr. Torres to justice.”

Torres was the co-owner of the San Sebastian, Puerto Rico-based saltwater aquarium business, Carebbean Reefers (spelling error intentional) that also operated online through the eBay store “Redragon1975”. 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.

Torres sent illegally collected live specimens to customers in the mainland United States and foreign countries by commercial courier services. One of the most popular items that Torres and his business sent off-island was an 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. Torres personally collected some of the Ricordea and other reef creatures that he sold off-island. On multiple occasions, he would accompany another person and they would snorkel from the shoreline in search of Ricordea. Because Ricordea are attached to the reef substrate, Torres would utilize a chisel to break off the animals, and in doing so, take chunks of the reef with him.

In order to cover up the nature of his shipments and to avoid detection from governmental inspection authorities, Torres would falsely label many of his live shipments as inanimate objects. From January 2014 to March 2016, Torres sent or caused to be sent at least 100 shipments of 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 aggregate retail value of illegal Ricordea shipped by Torres was worth approximately $400,000

This case was investigated as part of Operation Rock Bottom and Operation Borinquen Chisel by special agents of USFWS and NOAA with support from the USFWS inspectors. The case is being prosecuted by Christopher L. Hale of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmen Marquez for the District of Puerto Rico.

The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice.  Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years.

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