Judge orders federal prison for marine-life collectors

kwadlow@keynoter.comDecember 4, 2013 

Lemon sharks were among the marine life illegally collected from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

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The hammer of Operation Rock Bottom came down Monday and Tuesday on several defendants who confessed to illegally smuggling live fish and corals from Florida Keys waters.

Soliciting interstate sale of spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks illegally taken from the Keys "strikes to the very heart of this area and the economy of this area," U.S. District Court Judge Jose Martinez said Monday as he sentenced Idaho residents Ammon Covino, 39, and co-defendant Christopher Conk, 40.

The case involving the Idaho Aquarium was one of the biggest to emerge from what federal fisheries officers call Operation Rock Bottom, described as a "long-term investigation into the illegal harvesting and sale of marine life resources from the Florida Keys."

The former operators of Key Marine Inc., a now-closed marine life firm on Grassy Key, were sentenced to federal prison Tuesday after admitting to "a conspiracy to illegally harvest and market marine life from the Florida Keys to wholesalers throughout the United States and abroad." They apparently were involved in the Idaho case.

Eric Pedersen, 51, and Serdan Ercan, 43, took corals, reef fish, sea fans, sharks and rays in violation of the law for more than a year, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.

Martinez sentenced Pedersen to two years in prison, followed by two years of supervised probation. He was fined $10,000 and forfeited a boat used to collect fish.

Ercan was sentenced to one year imprisonment, a year of probation, and fined $6,000. Evidence indicates information from Keys Marine was used to find other defendants.

Ammon Covino was the president of the Idaho Aquarium and Conk was listed as secretary when they were arrested in February on federal charges of conspiracy and illegally purchasing protected marine life.

The two changed their pleas to guilty in September, acknowledging a conspiracy to violate the federal Lacey Act that prohibits interstate possession or sale of wildlife taken in violation of state law. Other counts were dropped.

The Idaho Aquarium board of directors cut its ties with Covino and Conk, then negotiated with prosecutors to pay fines and restitution adding up to $110,000. Martinez was expected to rule on that agreement Tuesday.

Conk was sentenced to four months in prison and forfeits his Ford F-250 truck used to transport the sharks and rays from an Idaho airport. Although Conk already was on federal probation for illegal shipping of coral, his sentence was reduced because federal prosecutors said Conk "has provided substantial assistance" since his arrest.

Both Covino and Conk will serve two years of supervised probation after their releases, with Conk given six months of house arrest. During the period of their supervised release, both men will be barred from having any connection to the sale or display of wildlife.

They were convicted of soliciting a sale, which they knew to be illegal, of three spotted eagle rays and two lemon sharks, taken from waters inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Florida law prohibits the taking of either species.

The spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks were captured alive in the Keys by marine-life collectors in mid-2012. The rays sold for $1,250 each, the sharks for $650 each. Covino told Keys fish collectors that the unpermitted taking of the rays and sharks was "no big deal," his plea agreement says.

"Unknown to Covino and Conk ... the [Keys] business owner was cooperating with federal authorities," prosecutors said. "The phone conversations and text messages were recorded."

The business apparently was Keys Marine, which was raided by federal and state authorities in 2011.

In a separate case from Operation Rock Bottom, the operator of a Michigan aquarium-supply store entered a guilty plea Monday.

Richard Perrin, 80, founder of Tropicorium Inc. in Romulus, Mich., will be sentenced in March for conspiracy to illegally harvest sea fans, tropical fish, sharks, invertebrates and even alligators that were sold through the business.

Tropicorium employee Richard Franko, 35, pleaded guilty to the same count Nov. 25.

The defendants admitted they failed to get "licenses required by Florida [law] for the marine life they harvested during multiple trips to the Florida Keys" over a three-year period.

While Perrin and Franko did their own collecting off Marathon, Key Marine handled shipments to Tropicorium.

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