SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The Justice Department announced that a Puerto Rico man was sentenced to two months in federal prison for felony violations of the Lacey Act that involved the trafficking and false labeling of protected reef creatures as part of an effort to subvert Puerto Rican laws designed to protect coral reef organisms.
Luis Joel Vargas Martell (Vargas), a resident of San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, pleaded guilty in November 2020 to export smuggling and two felony violations of the Lacey Act for collecting, purchasing, 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.
After retiring from the Puerto Rico Police Department, Vargas opened an online aquarium business from his home. During 2014 through 2016, Vargas was the co-owner of the 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.
Vargas 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 Vargas 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. Vargas personally collected much of the Ricordea and other reef creatures that he sold off-island. On multiple occasions, he would accompany his business partner, and they would snorkel from the shoreline in search of Ricordea. Because Ricordea are attached to the reef substrate, the pair would utilize a chisel to break off the animals, and in doing so, take chunks of the reef with them. This was detrimental to the marine environment as it caused physical degradation of the underlying reef structure.
In order to cover up the nature of his shipments and to avoid detection from governmental inspection authorities, the scheme included falsely labelling many of the live shipments as inanimate objects. From January 2014 to March 2016, Vargas sent or caused to be sent at least 40 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 Vargas was worth at least $90,000.
In addition to the prison time, Vargas was sentenced to a supervised release term of three years and three hundred hours of community service. The court also banned Vargas from collecting or procuring marine life, shipping marine life off-island and scuba diving and snorkeling in Puerto Rico. He was also required to surrender his fishing permits and to pay a criminal fine of $10,000 and restitution of $15,000. In a related matter, in December 2020, Raymond Torres was sentenced to five years of probation with similar bans on marine activity, 300 hours of community service, and financial penalties of $35,000.
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 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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 of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.