SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, February 25, 2021 (ENS) – A Puerto Rican man has been sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison for felonies involving the trafficking and false labeling of protected reef creatures in an effort to avoid Puerto Rican laws developed to protect sea life on coral reefs.
According to charges filed by the U.S. Justice Department, from 2013 until 2016, Aristides Sanchez owned a saltwater aquarium, Wonders of the Reef, in his hometown of Arecibo, a municipality on the northern coast of Puerto Rico on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Sanchez devoted a large portion of his business to selling popular native Puerto Rican marine species to other saltwater aquariums. Using commercial courier services, Sanchez was sending living marine specimens to customers around the world.
His most popular items were coral-like organisms from the Ricordea genus. Known as “rics,” “polyps” or “mushrooms” in the industry, these “flower mushroom” Ricordea corals are colorful and often spend their adult lives attached securely to their places on the reef.
To collect the Ricordea, Sanchez would hammer at the reef to unfasten the organisms and would take chunks of the reef with him while doing so.
While they are colorful in natural light, Ricordea glow alluringly when exposed to the UV lights often used in high-end saltwater aquariums, making them popular among saltwater aquarium enthusiasts because they are relatively easy to keep and have some amazing colorations.
In Puerto Rico, it is illegal to harvest Ricordea if the organisms are going to be sold commercially or off the island. No available permit allows this activity.
Yet, Sanchez harvested Ricordea and other reef organisms that he would sell to customers off-island.
Also, Sanchez purchased Ricordea from sources that he knew collected the specimens illegally, Justice Department prosecutors said.
Sanchez would often label his shipments as inanimate objects such as pet and aquarium supplies, or LED lights, and would sometimes use a fake name on the shipments to avoid government inspection and cover up the nature of his shipments.
From January 2013 through March 2016, Sanchez was involved in the shipment of over 130 packages filled with Ricordea that were harvested under illegal pretenses in Puerto Rico.
Shipping each package for around $25 to $50 for every item, Sanchez was able to make at least $800,000 in three years.
The Justice Department says that in addition to the prison time, Sanchez was sentenced to a supervised release term of two years and 120 hours of community service. The court has banned Sanchez from collecting or procuring marine life, shipping marine life off-island and scuba diving and snorkeling in Puerto Rico.
— By Georgia Seidman