Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Man fined for selling turtles on black market-Is last of 32 convicted in state, federal probe (Operation Shellschock) New York State - via Herp Digest


By Phil Fairbanks, News Staff Reporter, July 27, 2012,
Michael V. Johnson didn't know it at the time, but the two men who sold him live snapping turtles were undercover officers investigating the international black market for New York wildlife.
Johnson, a retired turtle meat distributor from Maryland, was sentenced in Buffalo federal court Thursday, the last of 32 people convicted as part of a state and federal investigation known as Operation Shellshock.
"There is an illegal market," said Lt. Richard D. Thomas, senior investigator in the Johnson case. "There are people globally who will pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for a specific species from the United States."
The sale of common snapping turtles may seem trivial to some, but only because people don't understand their role as "indicator species," Thomas said.
"They tell us when things are wrong with the environment," said Thomas, a state Department of Environmental Conservation investigator. "They're directly related to public health and safety because they're indicators of the health of the planet."
And it's not just common snapping turtles that are part of this lucrative black market in protected wildlife.
Investigators also found timber rattlesnakes and wood turtles being shipped out of state to collectors.
In one case, they arrested a Canadian smuggler in a Niagara Falls parking lot and inside his van found 33 Massasauga rattlesnakes, an endangered species, hidden in secret compartments.
Overall, Operation Shellshock resulted in criminal cases involving 2,400 turtles, snakes and salamanders. The investigation, which DEC officials kept quiet for years, resulted in 32 people being charged and convicted, and Johnson's sentencing represents an official end to those prosecutions.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy spared Johnson prison time and instead fined him $40,000 following his guilty plea to a single misdemeanor charge of attempted trafficking in prohibited wildlife.
McCarthy ordered the money deposited in the Lacey Act Reward Account, which is used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to, among other things, reward people who provide information about wildlife-related crimes.
"I apologize," Johnson told McCarthy Thursday. "I should have been more proactive in keeping up with the laws in other states."
Johnson, as part of a plea agreement, admitted buying more than 1,500 pounds of live snapping turtles from undercover agents in 2007 and 2008 while operating Turtles Deluxe, a turtle meat processing business in Maryland.
He also acknowledged selling the turtle meat, which is used in turtle soup and is popular in cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York City, for about $8,400.
Johnson, who sold his business last year, also shipped turtles to California for export to China, where they were used for breeding at turtle farms.
"I think this has been a very difficult and painful lesson for him," James Harrington, Johnson's defense lawyer, told McCarthy. "I don't think you'll see him before you again."
Even before Johnson pleaded guilty in January, he donated a total of $20,000 to three wildlife preservation groups, including the Buffalo Zoo and Tifft Nature Preserve.
While Johnson's sentencing officially closes Operation Shellshock, it doesn't end what Thomas calls the booming black market for protected wildlife here and across the country.
He thinks the state investigation was successful in removing several key players involved in international and domestic smuggling and in educating the public about the importance of common snapping turtles and other wildlife.
"These animals are critical parts of our ecosystems," he said. "I think Shellshock was successful in raising public awareness, but we also know the illegal market for a lot of wildlife continues to thrive and be strong."

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