A.G. Schneiderman Announces Cross-Border Convictions Of Canadian Fish Smuggler For Illegally Exporting Invasive Species Into The U.S.

A.G. Schneiderman Announces Cross-Border Convictions Of Canadian Fish Smuggler For Illegally Exporting Invasive Species Into The U.S.

AMHERST-- Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the conviction in Erie County Court of a Canadian pet dealer whose operation smuggled and exported invasive and endangered species into the United States. Muk Leung "Jim" Ip, 49, of Scarborough, Ontario, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of Illegal Commercialization of Fish, Shellfish, Crustaceans and Wildlife. The plea satisfies a complaint charging him with selling the invasive species Snakeheads, the endangered and protected Arowanas and the protected amphibian Axolotls. The charges and conviction are the result of a cross-border undercover investigation into exotic species smuggling operations.

"This cross-border investigation shut down an operation that put the Great Lakes, among New York’s most treasured natural resources, in jeopardy," Attorney General Schneiderman said. "Our office is committed to protecting the environment and we will prosecute those who put their own greed above the law."

According to the Attorney General's complaint, an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in an undercover operation during which Ip, an employee of Lucky Aquarium in Markham, Ontario, sold more than $1,500 worth of Arowanas. Ip sold more than $1,500 worth of Snakeheads to the same undercover agent. Ip sold the protected species, Axolotls, to the agent. Each of these sales were completed with Ip’s knowledge that the species would be illegally transported to New York.

As part of a global plea agreement, Ip also pleaded guilty in United States District Court to violating the Lacy Act by transporting the snakeheads from Canada to the United States and in Canadian courts to violating the Ontario Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Act and the Canadian Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.These convictions resulted in a sentence of 60 days jail to be served in Canada and over $15,000 in fines. Ip was fined $5,000 at his plea hearing in Erie County Court.

Snakeheads are highly invasive and can disrupt recreational fishing, harm native fish and wildlife and impact our economy. New York State prohibits the possession, sale and live transport of Snakehead fish. Importation and interstate transport of Snakeheads is prohibited under the federal Lacey Act. Northern snakeheads are dangerous predators that can be more than three-feet long  and that survive in a wide variety of habitats. With teeth similar to pike and walleye fish, they feed voraciously.

The Asian Arowana – commonly called “dragon fish” or “lucky fish” – is native to Southeast Asia and also grow to be three-feet long. Under the Endangered Species Act and international treaties, permits are required to export endangered or protected species from their country of origin and import them to the U.S. In the United States, Asian Arowanas sell on the black market for thousands of dollars.

Axolotls originate from Mexico and are used extensively in scientific research because  of their ability to regenerate limbs. As of 2010, wild Axolotls are near extinction due to urbanization in Mexico City.

According to the criminal complaints, Ip sold two Arowana to the undercover agent for $1,590.00; 154 Snakeheads for $233 each; and six Axolotls for $367.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, Co-Chair of the Great Lakes Task Force and author of the Invasive Fish and Wildlife Prevention Act of 2012, said, "We don't have to look too far upstream to see the threats posed by invasive species. The Great Lakes are relied upon for fishing, shipping and recreation and invasive species pose a serious threat to our economic and environmental health. I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman and the entire international law enforcement team for cracking down on illegal sales that could have had a devastating impact on the Lakes’ ecosystem and regional economy. The Great Lakes make up 20 percent of the world’s freshwater and we have an obligation to protect them.”

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martenssaid, “International smuggling of invasive and endangered species in to New York State is a major concern to the health of our natural ecosystems. If released into the wild, the species targeted in this undercover operation could have caused significant environmental damage to our native species. Since smugglers do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries, it is only through cooperative efforts involving partnering law enforcement and conservation agencies that we can enforce wildlife laws across national and international borders to protect our ecosystems.”

Jennifer Nalbone, Director of Navigation and Invasive Species for Great Lakes United, said, "We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for cracking down on illegally smuggled invasive species like the northern snakehead that clearly have no place in the Great Lakes ecosystem. This effort provides further evidence that law enforcement and preventative policies are critical to keeping these harmful invasive species away from our shores."

Katy Dunlap, Eastern Water Project Director for Trout Unlimitedsaid, "Throughout the country, invasive species are inflicting serious damage in waters where they simply do not belong. Not only are they harming existing fisheries, but they're cutting into fishing opportunities and doing long-term, irreparable harm to the environment. We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for enforcing New York's strict laws against allowing exotic and invasive fish into the state and for recognizing the importance of protecting America's waters from further damage."

The charges are the result of a joint international investigation into the illegal trade between Canada and the United States of invasive species and species at risk. The multi-agency investigation was conducted by officers from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment Canada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The Attorney General thanks all of the investigative agencies for their assistance with this case.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant Attorneys General Cydney A. Kelly and Paul F. McCarthy under the supervision of Stephen J. Maher, Deputy Bureau Chief of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau and Gail Heatherly, Chief of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau. Department of Environmental Conservation Investigators David DiPasquale and Lieutenant John Burke investigated the case.