The Taiwanese couple who pleaded guilty a few months ago to smuggling internationally protected black coral into the territory was sentenced this week in District Court to heavy prison terms for violating federal wildlife statutes.
Ivan Chu was sentenced to 30 months in jail and a $12,500 fine, while Gloria Chu, was sentenced to 20 months in prison and a $12,500 fine. Both have also been banned from shipping any coral and other wildlife products to the United States for three-years following their release from prison.
"These sentences are the longest prison sentences for illegal trade in coral to date," according to a U.S. Justice Department release.
In March, the Chus pleaded guilty to nine counts, including conspiracy, making false statements and violations of two federal wildlife laws: the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act.
According to their plea agreement, the Chus admitted to importing black coral through their company, Peng Chia Enterprise, to a St. Thomas-based firm, referred to in court documents as "Company X," between December 2008 and this January. The coral was to be used in jewelry and sculpture without requisite permits according to CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The Chus said they marked boxes of coral with false labels to throw off U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, shipping from a supplier in China through an intermediary in Hong Kong to get their illicit product to the unnamed shop on St. Thomas, which has so far not accepted any of the blame.
A 10-box shipment of black coral marked “plastic of craft work” in August alerted federal agents, who launched an investigation dubbed “Operation Black Gold” involving Customs, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and other federal agencies, which finally charged the Chus for smuggling almost $200,000 worth of the endangered species to the St. Thomas jeweler.
U.S. Justice officials have said this case sets a precedent for those engaged in illegal wildlife trafficking.
"This case demonstrates that there will be consequences to those who illegally exploit our marine environment and that such behavior will not be tolerated," U.S. Attorney for the U.S. Virgin Islands Ronald Sharpe said in this week’s statement.