Two-week USFWS sting operation nets 12 people smuggling sea turtle meat, eggs into the U.S.

Date: August 4, 1998
Contact: Gary Appelson
Phone: (325) 373-6441

A two-week-long U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sting operation at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport netted 12 people who illegally smuggled sea turtle meat and eggs into the United States aboard international flights from Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador. The investigation, which took place between July 17 and Aug. 2, resulted in the confiscation of 764 eggs and about 75 pounds of sea turtle meat.

"I was surprised by the number of people who were bringing in sea turtle products," said Ed Grace, USFWS special agent. "I expected maybe one or two seizures." Because of the high numbers of people caught smuggling sea turtle products, the USFWS expects to conduct another such operation again this summer. All species of sea turtles are either threatened or endangered and are protected in many countries, including the U.S., by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).

The one arrest during the operation was of a Costa Rican citizen, Franklin Delano Reid, who was found to have stashed in his luggage eight sea turtle flippers, 490 sea turtle eggs, and about 30 pounds of smoked sea turtle meat. Reid, who was caught at the U.S. Customs checkpoint after debarking Lacsa Airlines Flight 680 from Costa Rica, also had smoked monkey meat. Grace said that agents are still trying to learn who Reid planned to sell the meat and eggs to. If convicted, Reid could receive five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In addition to Reid's arrest, six people were given tickets for importing endangered species, with fines ranging from $250-$500 depending on the amount of sea turtle meat or eggs they had. Five others, who had smaller amounts of sea turtle products, were given warnings and released.

After Reid's arrest, Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) worked closely with Special Agent Grace to identify the species of animals killed and to determine where in Costa Rica the sea turtle meat Reid had might have come from. USFWS agents and Caribbean Conservation Corporation believe a lot of the sea turtle meat and eggs confiscated came from sea turtles nesting on the beaches of Tortuguero, Costa Rica, the site of CCC's sea turtle research and conservation efforts for more than 40 years.

"Although sea turtles have been protected in the U.S. since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, there is still a demand here for sea turtle meat and eggs," said David Godfrey, CCC Executive Director. "The results of this investigation show how important it is for people to support conservation and law enforcement efforts to protect sea turtles."

Although killing a sea turtle or taking its eggs is illegal in the United States and many other countries, some countries, like Costa Rica, allow limited harvest of the endangered animals for local consumption. In many cultures, sea turtle eggs are considered an aphrodisiac. CCC recently filed a lawsuit against the government of Costa Rica to stop the legal harvest of Caribbean green sea turtles for their meat because CCC believes that the green turtle population, decimated by centuries of over harvest by humans, cannot tolerate the annual killing of large numbers of reproductive adults. Also, CCC said, the legal harvest of sea turtles makes it difficult for Costa Rican law enforcement agents to determine if someone has taken the turtle legally or if they have illegally killed an animal in a protected area like Tortuguero. And, as the recent arrest of Reid shows, legal harvest in Costa Rica can lead to the smuggling of turtle meat and eggs into the U.S.

Caribbean Conservation Corporation is a 40-year-old nonprofit sea turtle research and conservation organization dedicated to preservation of sea turtles and other coastal and marine wildlife through research, education and advocacy and the protection of natural areas. CCC's U.S. headquarters are in Gainesville, Fla. CCC has an office in San Jose, Costa Rica, and a biological field station in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, the most important nesting site for endangered Caribbean green sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere.

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The Sea Turtle Conservancy, formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy's work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend. To achieve its mission, the Sea Turtle Conservancy uses research, habitat protection, public education, community outreach, networking and advocacy as its basic tools. These tools are applied in both international and domestic programs focusing on geographic areas that are globally important to sea turtle survival. For more information, visit the STC website at www.conserveturtles.org or call (800) 678-7853.