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Record fine for VI firm caught trading protected coral
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Oct 26, 2011

US authorities slapped a US Virgin Islands company on Wednesday with a record $4.5 million in total fines for trading in thousands of pounds of protected black coral in the United States.

The Justice Department said GEM Manufacturing was sentenced to the highest financial penalty ever imposed on a firm involved in the illegal coral trade.

The company headquartered in St. Thomas was sentenced for "knowingly trading in falsely-labeled, protected black coral that was shipped into the United States in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act," the agency said in a statement.

GEM was sentenced to pay a criminal fine of $1.8 million after the firm pleaded guilty in July to seven counts of violating the ESA and the Lacey Act, which makes it a felony to falsely label wildlife.

It was also ordered to pay an additional $500,000 in community service for projects to protect black coral, and forced to forfeit jewelry, artistic sculpture and more than 13,655 pounds (6,200 kilograms) of raw coral valued at more than $2.17 million.

Citing the growing challenge in preserving the world's coral, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Ignacia Moreno said the Justice Department "will continue to work with our federal partners to aggressively investigate and prosecute those who violate US law by illegally trading in protected species."

William Woody, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's chief of law enforcement, said the illegal trade "further threatens already fragile coral reef ecosystems."

"The penalties here should make it clear that the United States will not tolerate trafficking in these protected resources," he added.

GEM was accused of procuring black coral through various subsidiaries without certificates from CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The owners of GEM's former black coral supplier, Peng Chia Enterprise Co. of Taiwan, were arrested in a sting operation and sentenced last year to between 20 and 30 months in prison for illegally providing black coral to GEM.

Black coral provides key habitat for a variety of deep sea species. Such slow-growing coral can live for hundreds or even thousands of years, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The precious coral can be polished to a high sheen and is valued for its use in artistic sculpture and jewelry.

Overharvesting due to the wider availability of deep sea scuba gear has threatened the coral group, with an increase of seizures of black coral suggesting that poaching is on the rise.

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