An aquatics dealer from the West Midlands has pleaded guilty to three charges of smuggling endangered corals.
Lee Webster was arrested after officers from the Border Force discovered 24 boxes of live coral at Manchester Airport, due to be delivered to Webster’s business address in Burntwood, Staffordshire, for which he did not have import permits, reports the Manchester Evening News.
The shipment included 136 corals covered by CITES — which means it is illegal to bring them into the EU.
During a raid by officers from the National Crime Agency and Border Force at Webster’s address, evidence was also discovered of two earlier shipments containing endangered corals, which he had smuggled in under a permit for legal species.
Webster admitted the three charges of illegal importation offences and was sentenced last week to 12 months in prison, suspended for 18 months, at Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester.
The corals have been taken to the Blue Planet Aquarium in Cheshire Oaks, where they will go on display.
The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association has welcomed the sentence on Webster.
“We do not believe deliberately evading the controls that apply to the import of corals should be regarded as a trivial offence,” said OATA Chief Executive Keith Davenport.
“It adversely impacts the conservation in the wild of the species concerned and undermines honest collectors and exporters in the country of origin. It also clearly jeopardises honest businesses which operate within the law. By offering a wider selection of corals and avoiding the costs of legal imports, this type of operator diverts business away from honest traders.
"And this illegal activity inevitably affects the reputation of the whole industry both in the UK and globally.
"Ultimately we have to ask retailers and hobbyists to be very careful about where they buy unusual or hard-to-get corals from. If what’s on offer seems too good to be true then it probably is and, if you’re a retailer, you should always be asking for the import permit number. Buying from unscrupulous dealers hurts the industry and the hobby, and threatens the conservation of coral species.
"We also have to thank Border Force for pursuing this and we will always support them where there is evidence of criminal activity."
Grant Miller, Border Force’s conservation lead, told Manchester Evening News: "Border Force takes its role in preventing illegal wildlife trafficking very seriously and this seizure of endangered corals shows that we will catch up with criminals who seek to circumvent the law.
"The illicit trade in endangered animals is a serious contributory factor to the threat of extinction faced by many endangered species and something Border Force, together with our partners in the UK and internationally, is determined to stop."
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