A high-end jewelry manufacturer in the U.S. Virgin Islands was ordered Wednesday to forfeit thousands of pounds (kilograms) of protected black coral and pay a $1.8 million fine for trading in it.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced that Gem Manufacturing Inc. pleaded guilty to seven counts of violating the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which bans the import of illegally harvested wildlife and plants.
A federal court also sentenced the St. Thomas company to pay $500,000 in community service and to forfeit dozens of jewelry items, sculptures and over 13,655 pounds (6,194 kilograms) of raw black coral. Together they are worth about $2.17 million.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, the overall financial penalty of $4.4 million is the largest ever for non-seafood wildlife trafficking and the fourth-largest for any U.S. case involving the illegal trade of wildlife.
Black coral is an organism that attaches itself to rocks in deep ocean water and grows like a plant. The protected coral can only be harvested for jewelry and other purposes if certain regulations are met under strict trade regulations.
Eric Schwaab, an assistant administrator with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service, said black coral is a slow-growing species that serves as habitat for numerous species in the deep sea. It can live for hundreds to thousands of years.
At Wednesday's sentencing in federal court in St. Thomas, the jewelry company also was banned from doing business with its former coral supplier, Peng Chia Enterprise Co. Ltd. of Taiwan., or its management team of Ivan and Gloria Chu.
Last year, the Taiwanese couple were arrested in the U.S. Virgin Islands and pleaded guilty to illegally importing black coral to the islands. They said they got the coral from a warehouse in mainland China for their business supplying materials for jewelry design.
In a 2010 plea deal, Ivan Chu agreed to serve two and a half years in prison and pay a $12,500 fine, and Gloria Chu agreed to serve 20 months and pay a $12,500 fine.