News Releases 2004
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The U.S. Supreme Court recently denied a petition for appeal and thus upheld the guilty verdicts that an Alabama jury rendered against four individuals involved in a multi-million dollar seafood smuggling scheme in violation of the Lacey Act.
David McNab, Robert Blandford, Abbie Schoenwetter and Diane Huang had been previously sentenced to jail terms for their roles in a conspiracy related to the illegal harvest and importation of lobster tails originating from Honduras. All four defendants will now serve their respective jail terms, the longest being eight years.
Special Agents of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) Office for Law Enforcement, with assistance from the FBI and the IRS, conducted the seizure May 2000. The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Alabama, with the assistance of the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“This is an excellent example of the hard work of NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement and its cooperation with other agencies in addressing violations of our fisheries laws,” said James R. Walpole, NOAA general counsel.
The evidence at trial revealed there were more than 40 illegal shipments of spiny lobster tails originating from Honduras that were purchased by Blandford's SEAMERICA Company. The shipments involved more than 1.6 million pounds of illegal spiny lobster. The illegal lobster had a resale value of over $17 million.
Blandford, whose illegal lobster figures were the highest, was convicted of smuggling in excess of 170,000 individual undersized lobster tails into the United States. The federal government also presented additional evidence at the sentencing hearing demonstrating significantly more illegal shipments.
The defendants were found to have intentionally falsified import documents by utilizing a secret code to disguise the true size of the lobster tails. The defendant’s use of a “secret code” demonstrated that they knew their actions were illegal, according to NOAA lawyers.
After federal special agents with NOAA Fisheries discovered and stopped their attempts to smuggle through waterborne shipping routes, the defendants imported large quantities of undersized lobster by commercial airlines. These air shipments contained virtually all undersized and illegally coded lobster. One particular air shipment contained over 26,000 undersized Honduran lobster tails.
This investigation also involved the seizure of over 5,000 pounds of female egg-bearing lobster. In many instances, the eggs had been illegally clipped or removed to avoid detection.
Documents introduced at trial indicated that for many years, McNab did not properly report and process approximately half of his lobster harvest to the appropriate Honduran officials. Instead, he shipped the unprocessed lobster tails to a small shipping port in Alabama, where Blandford's U.S. company SEAMERICA agreed to buy them. Without such data, fisheries managers cannot accurately regulate and manage this lobster fishery.
News reports on the subject have erroneously stated that Blandford was importing “a very small quantity of undersized lobster.” The information set forth during the trial counters this claim. More than 10,000 individual undersized lobster tails were in the single lobster shipment that was seized by NOAA Fisheries special agents.
The Caribbean spiny lobster, often marketed in the United States as rock lobster, is found in Florida and throughout the Caribbean. McNab owns the largest lobster boat fleet in Honduras, if not the entire Caribbean. Biologists state that the offspring of lobster populations off the Western Caribbean coast, such as Honduras and Nicaragua, are a primary parental source for replenishing the lobster stocks in the Southeast United States.
Florida’s commercial lobster fisheries are experiencing a third year of decline. Many historic lobster-producing countries have documented a dramatic decline in their lobster harvests and the illegal harvest of small lobster and egg-bearing female lobster is frequently attributed to this decline.
NOAA’s Fisheries is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources through scientific research, management, enforcement and the conservation of marine mammals and other protected marine species and their habitat.
NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.
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