A resident of Juncos, Puerto Rico, pleaded guilty today to 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.
In 2015 and 2016, Juan Pablo Castro-Torres, aka Paoly, supplied marine invertebrates, such as Ricordea, to an Arecibo-based aquarium store known as “Wonders of the Reef.” The business would sell these coral-like organisms to customers in the mainland United States and foreign countries for use in high-end saltwater aquariums, even though 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. Castro-Torres personally collected many of the Ricordea and other reef creatures that were sold off-island. Because Ricordea are attached to the reef substrate, the defendant would utilize a chisel to break off the animals, and in doing so, take chunks of the reef with him, which caused habitat damage in addition to removing the individual creatures.
The Arecibo store was run by Aristides Sanchez. Castro-Torres began supplying Sanchez’s business with Ricordea after Puerto Rican law enforcement seized one of Sanchez’s illegal shipments of marine invertebrates in March 2015. Sanchez pleaded guilty to related Lacey Act violations in August 2017 and is awaiting sentencing.
In order to cover up the nature of his shipments and to avoid detection from governmental inspection authorities, Castro-Torres also falsely labeled live shipments as inanimate objects. While there is some variation in the price of Ricordea depending on coloration, size, and other factors, Castro-Torres admitted that the value of the illegal marine life directly attributable to him was worth approximately $15,000.
Castro-Torres will be sentenced at a later date.
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 (USFWS) 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.