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Illegal Sale of Sea Turtle Meat Results in Jail Time

A hawksbill sea turtle shell collected as evidence seized as part of an investigation into the illegal sale of sea turtle meat and carapaces in Puerto Rico.

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and the FBI conducted a joint undercover operation leading to the arrest of a Puerto Rican man for his role in the illegal sale of sea turtle meat in violation of the Lacey Act. Manuel Garcia-Figueroa, a resident of Playa Añasco, Puerto Rico, was sentenced to 15 days in jail, 150 hours of community service, and three years of supervised release.

On November 18, 2013, Garcia-Figueroa pleaded guilty to knowingly selling more than $350 of meat and carapaces from endangered hawksbill sea turtles and meat from a threatened green sea turtle, while knowing that the sea turtles had been taken in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

For this investigation NOAA Law Enforcement initially received information that indicated Manuel Garcia Figueroa was involved in offering sea turtle meat for sale. Through the investigation it was determined that an undercover operation was the best approach to gather evidence of the crime. Using the FBI, the undercover operation was able capture critical evidence showing that Garcia Figueroa was knowingly and willfully involved in the illegal trade of endangered sea turtle. During the undercover operation, Garcia Figueroa went as far as to warn the undercover operative to be careful because selling turtle meat was illegal.

“The outcome of this case emphasizes the importance of protecting sea turtles and their natural habitat. We will continue to work with our federal partners and the Puerto Rico Environmental Crimes Task Force to enforce laws and regulations designed to protect all marine mammals and the marine environment,” said Lynn Rios, who was the NOAA special agent on the case.

The Lacey Act is the principal U.S. statute designed to reduce the role that wildlife poaching, selling, and smuggling plays in depleting protected species. Once an ESA-listed wildlife species is taken or possessed illegally, it is unlawful to “import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase” that species.

Jeff Radonski, Acting Deputy Special Agent in Charge for NOAA Law Enforcement’s Southeast Division noted that “[T]he challenge in protecting marine resources is changing long term behavior for the betterment of the resource. Hopefully this case will move us in a positive direction and willingness to protect all endangered species.”

All species of sea turtles found in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and waters adjacent to the United States are protected by the ESA. Sea turtles are long-lived and slow to reach maturity. Pressures from habitat loss, fishing operations, pollution, illegal harvesting of eggs, and poaching of adults exacerbate the extinction risk faced by these animals. In addition to being important to tourism, sea turtles play a key role in the maintenance of marine ecosystems through their selective consumption of sea grasses, jellyfish, and sponges. In Puerto Rico, the green sea turtle is listed as “threatened” under the ESA; the hawksbill sea turtle is listed as “endangered.”

This case was prosecuted by the Environment Crimes Section of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Assistant U.S. Attorneys from the District of Puerto Rico.

Contact John Thibodeau, communications specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, at 301-427-8234 or email john.thibodeau@noaa.gov for more information.