Illegally taken Keys fish not returning to Keys waters

kwadlow@keynoter.comOctober 30, 2013 

Live sharks and other marine animals illegally captured in Florida Keys waters may travel again -- but likely will not come home.

Facilities like the privately owned Idaho Aquarium must surrender rays and sharks that former managers unlawfully obtained from Keys marine-life collectors, said Jeff Radonski, a federal fisheries special agent in South Florida.

"They don't get to keep the animals," Radonski said Monday. "That's not going to happen."

Decisions about the ultimate destination of fish recovered after investigations are made on a case-by-case basis.

"A lot of these critters wound up on the [U.S.] west coast," Radonski said. "You have to consider the cost of moving them to bring them back."

Some will be turned over to closer nonprofit display facilities "where the public has the ability to view them," said Radonski, deputy special agent in charge of the regional Office of Law Enforcement for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That avoids another cross-country trip that could prove stressful and unhealthy for the animals.

"They'll go somewhere where they can be taken care of," the agent said. "We don't disclose the actual locations because of security concerns."

When possible, healthy marine animals are released into the wild where the species are native. There are exceptions.

"After being in captivity, some sharks may have come to associate humans with being fed," Radonski said. "So that's definitely a situation where you don't want to do a release."

Animals that appear unhealthy cannot be released.

An investigation based in the Keys resulted in a series of arrests made earlier this year. At least eight people were criminally charged with capturing protected fish in Keys water or knowingly buying the marine animals without necessary permits.

Six of the defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the federal Lacey Act, which bans interstate trafficking in wildlife taken against state law. Prison sentences are possible when four defendants face sentencing in December in Key West.

A criminal case against two staffers of a Michigan aquarium-supply company remains active.

Lemon sharks, bonnethead sharks, nurse sharks and spotted eagle rays were among the animals illegally sold after being captured in the Keys.

Authorities also documented the illegal purchase, possession or sale of undersized and oversized angelfish, sea fans and live rock, which refers to rock covered with living soft corals.

"This has national implications beyond the Florida Keys," Radonski said. "The aquarium trade is getting bigger and bigger every year."

"It's just as much an environmental crime as a financial crime. A lot of damage cane be done ripping coral from the bottom," he said. "Our agents are out there trying to protect our marine resources, from fish to coral."

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