German businessman smuggled coral into US from Philippines

A German businessman pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Oregon to smuggling 40 tons of coral into the US from the Philippines. Coral reefs are threatened globally.

Scott Keeler/Newscom
Elkhorn Coral grows on the Looe Key Reef, in the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary in the Florida Keys.

Anti-smuggling operations by US law enforcement agents aren’t always targeted at intercepting terrorists, drugs, or illicit money. Sometimes the effort is aimed at protecting the earth itself.

This week, federal prosecutors wrapped up an investigation into a scheme to smuggle 40 tons of coral into the US from the Philippines in violation of laws protecting the world’s coral reefs.

A German businessman from Essen pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Portland, Ore., to arranging two shipments in 2008 from the Philippines to Miami and Portland.

Gunther Wenzek runs a company called CoraPet, which sells sand, pebbles, sponges, and shells for aquariums, terrariums, and ponds.

According to documents filed in the case, Mr. Wenzek illegally smuggled two 20-foot shipping containers of coral into the US. The containers were falsely labeled as holding “rock” or “gravel.”

To disguise the true nature of the cargo, Wenzek told his US-based customer to prepare shipping documents using a US Customs tariff code for limestone products.

In an e-mail, Wenzek explained: “This does not pinpoint custom direct on checking of CORAL products etc. That should be avoided.”

A week later, according to court documents, he followed up with another e-mail, again urging use of the deceptive tariff code. “Point is: this numbers do not point custom automatically on the subject: CORAL. That’s important I guess and doesn’t make ‘noise,’ ” he wrote.

Coral is a fundamental building block of a healthy ocean ecosystem. Most of the world’s coral reefs are in decline or under severe environmental stress. Tough laws restricting the trade in coral have been passed in recognition of the danger to the health of the world’s oceans.

The problem is coral is also a lucrative commodity.

“Preventing the further decline of coral reefs through strong enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws is paramount in preserving marine environments and fisheries,” said John Cruden, acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“We will not allow criminals to profit from the illegal devastation of the world’s coral reefs,” added Kent Robinson, acting US Attorney in Oregon.

The case was investigated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Customs, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Wenzek is set to be sentenced Jan. 5.

Because he pleaded guilty and is cooperating with investigators, prosecutors are recommending he be sentenced to three years probation and pay $35,000 in fines and restitution.

According to court documents, $8,890 of his fine will be paid into an Endangered Species Justice Fund established at the Oregon Zoo. The zoo uses the money to fund programs supporting threatened and endangered wildlife.


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