TORONTO (Reuters) – An international sting operation has netted 27 tonnes of an endangered shellfish, after DNA tests proved that imports labeled whelk meat actually came from the queen conch, authorities said on Wednesday.
The equivalent of seven fully loaded semi-trailers of queen conch meat, an endangered species that is widely used in Caribbean and Asian cooking, was found in shipments to several North American cities in an 18-month operation that began in March 2006, U.S. and Canadian officials said.
“This is way off the radar as far as anything we’ve seen in the past,” Sheldon Jordan, director of wildlife enforcement for the Quebec region at Environment Canada, told Reuters.
“(Wildlife trade) is third behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking as far as illegal activities worldwide, so this has an important economic impact in addition to the biological impact that it has by taking these species out of the ecosystems.”
The smugglers, based as far apart as Miami, Florida and Vancouver, British Columbia, would ship the mislabeled meat into Canada, and then redistribute it to the United States through Buffalo, New York.
The meat, also known as pink conch, is legally fished and consumed on a limited basis in some Caribbean countries, and its shells are sold as tourist souvenirs.
But overfishing in the 1970s and 1980s has left the queen conch endangered, prompting a near-total U.S. embargo on the meat from 2003 to 2006.
Jordan said three people had been charged with smuggling, along with two companies. Under Canadian law, the individuals could face up to five years in jail or a C$300,000 fine, or both, if they are convicted. U.S. penalties are up to five years imprisonment and fines, in this case, up to $1 million.
“The two interceptions that we had in Montreal in November of last year and Halifax in December basically cut the dragon off at the head,” he said of the operation.