Posted: June 19, 2012, 7:45 p.m. EDT
New York has filed two felony charges and one misdemeanor against a Canadian aquarium store owner for allegedly illegally exporting invasive and endangered species into the United States.
Initial efforts to contact the accused, Muk Leung “Jim” Ip, owner of Lucky Aquarium in Markham, Ontario, Canada, have been unsuccessful.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the charges today, alleging that Ip sold an undercover investigator snakeheads, an invasive species, and arowanas and axolotls, endangered and protected species. The transactions for both the snakeheads and the arowanas exceeded $1,500, leading to felony charges. The axolotl transaction did not exceed the $1,500 threshold, so that alleged transaction resulted in a misdemeanor charge.
The felony complaint included this image of a giant snakehead (Channa micropeltes) and an axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) to illustrate species involved in alleged December 2011 transaction.
The charges are based on the sworn deposition of Randy Cottrell, a special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cottrell said he had been involved since 2007 “in a long-term undercover investigation into the smuggling of endangered and prohibited fish and wildlife species into the state of New York for the greater Toronto, Ontario, Canada, area through the Buffalo/Niagara Ports of Entry.”
Cottrell said he went to the Lucky Aquarium in June 2010 inquiring about the purchase of Asian arowanas, which are illegal to possess in the United States although CITES (the Convention on Trade of Endangered Species) allows restricted international trade of the fish, also known as dragon fish. They are legal to possess in Canada. An employee at Lucky Aquarium allegedly gave Cottrell Ip’s business card. Between June and August 2010, Cottrell said he communicated with Ip via phone, email and store visits discussing potential purchases of the arowanas. On Aug. 26, Cottrell said Ip showed him arowanas in tanks in the store and also showed him their certificates of origin.
Cottrell said he told Ip of his intention to take the arowanas into the United States and alleged that Ip stated that “he could not smuggle the arowanas himself into the U.S. because he works in a fish store and it would be reasoned that he of all people should know the rules.”
Cottrell also said Ip told him that he would not be able to obtain an export permit for the fish if it was known they were headed to the U.S. He also said Ip insisted on cash because “he did not want any records since the arowanas were going to the U.S.”
On March 24, 2011, Cottrell alleged he purchased two arowanas from an employee of Ip’s in a motel parking lot in Fort Erie, Canada, for $1,590.
In May 2011, Cottrell telephoned Ip inquiring about purchasing snakehead fish, according to the felony complaint. Cottrell alleged that Ip informed him that snakeheads were illegal to have and sell in Toronto but that Ip could obtain them from overseas. Ip later told Cottrell that he received a shipment of snakeheads from Thailand every two weeks, according to the felony complaint.
In a subsequent conversation, Ip acknowledged that it unlawful to import snakeheads into the United States, Cottrell alleged in the felony complaint.
In July 2011, Cottrell alleged Ip sent 26 giant snakeheads via UPS to an undercover address in Amherst, N.Y., after Cottrell sent him a $400 money order. The package was intercepted at the Peace Bridge Border Crossing in Buffalo, N.Y., where Cottrell confiscated the fish and allowed the now empty shipping container to continue on its way so that Ip would not realize that the shipment had been detained.
In November 2011, Ip emailed Cottrell, indicating he could obtain 200 to 300 4-inch red snakehead fish. Cottrell replied that he was interested and negotiated a potential sales date of Dec. 4, 2011.
On Dec. 1, 2011, Cottrell alleges Ip telephoned him, confirming he had about 130 snakeheads and that he also had eight “illegal reptile/amphibian animals he would like to sell.”
Cottrell later identified those animals, labeled as white dragon lizards, were axolotls.
Cottrell alleges Ip told him that it was illegal to import the axolotls into North America and that he believed they were invasive. (Axolotls come from Mexico and are near extinction because of urbanization in Mexico City and polluted waters, according to Schneiderman’s office. They are a CITES-protected species.)
The felony complaint included this image of an Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) to illustrate species involved in alleged March 2011 transaction.
Ultimately, Cottrell purchased 154 snakeheads for $2,233 (about $14.50 each) and seven axolotls for $367 (about $55 each), according to the felony complaint.
The investigation was a joint effort by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment Canada and the New York State Department of Environment and Conservation, according to the charges.
New York’s main concern was the potential invasiveness of the snakeheads.
“This is a case where law enforcement cooperation between two countries and multiple agencies resulted in shutting down an operation that attempted to advance an individual’s self-interest at the expense of New York’s natural resources, specifically our Great Lakes,” Schneiderman said. “Our office remains committed to protecting our environment and we will prosecute those who are willing to put their own greed above the law.”
Neither the felony complaint nor the attorney general’s press release announcing the charges indicate that Ip was suspected or implicated in any illegal transactions other than the three counts listed in the felony complaint.
Ip is facing related federal charges in both the U.S. and Canada, according to Schneiderman’s office. Details of how he would be prosecuted are pending. A spokesperson declined to say whether the investigation was ongoing or would result in any additional charges from New York.
The two felonies carry a maximum penalty of four years’ imprisonment; the misdemeanor carries up to one year of imprisonment and a mandatory $5,000 fine.<HOME>
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