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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, June 15, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesFish and Wildlife Service Makes Waves with Smuggling Arrest

Fish and Wildlife Service Makes Waves with Smuggling Arrest

The recent arrest of two Taiwan nationals for allegedly smuggling internationally protected black coral to St. Thomas shined a rare spotlight on the international trade in threatened and endangered wildlife – the preoccupation of a small but determined cadre of agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Those agents set their sights on the U.S. Virgin Islands last year when U.S. Customs officials found hundreds of pounds of black coral arriving on St. Thomas shipped from Taiwan in multiple boxes marked as plastic craft works and other phony labels.

The containers, allegedly sent by Taiwan nationals Gloria and Ivan Chu, under the business name of Peng Chia Enterprise Co, were purchased for nearly $50,000 from a St. Thomas jewelry and sculpture maker referred to only as “Company X” in the 18-page federal indictment that led to the Chu’s arrests.

According to the charges, the couple violated numerous U.S. laws, including the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, when they shipped six containers to St. Thomas between Dec. 22, 2008, and Jan. 10, 2010. Some of the boxes weighed as much as 345 pounds, according to court documents.

Black coral is protected worldwide and requires special permits to be exported and imported under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known commonly as CITES. The United States is among 175 CITES signatory countries.

By allegedly exporting black coral from Taiwan without a CITES permit, the couple violated the Endangered Species Act, according to the indictment. And by allegedly importing it to the U.S. Virgin Islands under a false label, they are also charged under the Lacey Act, the document said.

In recent testimony before Congress, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there are 120 wildlife inspectors stationed at 38 U.S. ports of entry, and 186 special agents designated to investigate such violations of U.S. wildlife laws, including international wildlife smuggling operations.

Black coral and other corals, “live rock,” and coral reef organisms and fish are among the more than 30,000 animal and plant species tracked by those agents under CITES.

“International trade in corals, live rock (dead coral or substrate covered with live invertebrates), or reef fish contribute to the decline and degradation of reefs,” according to the FWS website, which cites the aquarium, curio and jewelry trades, as well as the seafood and live food fish industries among the main culprits.

“Collection of corals for the aquarium and jewelry industries typically targets a small number of rare, slow-growing, long-lived species,” the FWS report said. “Overharvest of these and other coral species can cause localized destruction of reefs, increased erosion, and loss of fish habitat.”

The black coral the Chus are accused of sending to “Company X” on St. Thomas came from Taiwan, all of whose own reefs are threatened, according to the International Coral Reef Research and Monitoring Center.

Much of the coral found on the black market comes from reefs in Southeast Asia, according to the FWS.

A recent report in the Virgin Islands Daily News speculated that “Company X” could refer to St. Thomas jewelry and sculpture gallery of Bernard K. Passman.

Passman, who died in 2007, was known as the “Coral King” for his intricate jewelry designs and other artworks fashioned from black coral.

A spokesperson said the gallery had done business with the Chus’ company, Peng Chia Enterprise Co, in the past, according to the Daily News report.

According to its website, Peng Chia Enterprise has been exporting coral, pearls and gemstones to markets in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America since 1977.

A series of emails sent between the Chus and representatives from “Company X” quoted in the federal indictment indicate that both parties knew the trade was illegal and that black coral was intentionally shipped under the cover of being plastic crafts.

In one such email, Gloria Chu warns that one package that was delayed by U.S. Customs “WILL BRING US VERY BIG TROUBLE!!!!” if it was returned.

The federal indictment against the Chus, filed on Jan. 14, includes 18 counts. They face a maximum of 63 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as reported by the Daily News.

“The ease of travel, transport and transaction that characterizes the global marketplace has bolstered the illegal wildlife trade, facilitating its conduct and foiling its detection,” Benito Perez, chief of law enforcement for the FWS, recently told Congress.

“Over the past decade,” he said, “interest in exotic locales as tourist destinations has increased, as has our ability to buy virtually anything we want from anywhere in the world just by visiting a website.”

The Chus’ website, in which Gloria Chu uses the alias “Gloria Yeh,” remains in service, advertising, among other things, pearls and coral.

“If you have interest,” the site says, “welcome contact with us.”

The FWS says consumers shopping for coral, live rock and marine fish, “are encouraged to ask stores for information about where these products came from and how they are collected.”

“Consumers in this country should make sure these products are legal before buying them,” the service says on its site, “and Americans who travel abroad should check U.S. laws and the laws of the country they’re visiting before bringing corals and seashells home as souvenirs.”

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