Luis Joel Vargas Martell (Vargas) was the co-owner of a home-based saltwater aquarium business, Carebbean Reefers (spelling error intentional) that also operated online through the EBay store “Redragon1975”. A large part of the business was devoted to the sale of native Puerto Rican marine species that are popular in the saltwater aquarium trade.
On Monday, he pleads guilty to export smuggling and two felony violations of the Lacey Act for collecting, purchasing, falsely labeling, and shipping protected marine invertebrate species as part of an effort to subvert Puerto Rican law designed to protect corals and other reef species, the Department of Justice announced.
Luis Vargas collected the popular genus Ricordea and sent that genus to customers in the United States waiting for the live specimens. The Department of Justice correctly points out that reef aquarium keepers like the “glow” under the “UV lights” that are typically used in high-end saltwater reef aquariums. However, we do not like illegally collected corals from protected reef environments. In Puerto Rico, it is illegal to harvest Ricordea, zoanthids, and anemones specimens if they are going to be sent off-island or otherwise sold commercially, nor is there a permit available to do so.
In order to cover up the nature of his shipments and to avoid detection from governmental inspection authorities, the scheme included falsely labeling many of the live shipments as inanimate objects. From January 2014 to March 2016, Vargas sent or caused to be sent at least 40 shipments of marine species that were illegally harvested in the waters of Puerto Rico. While there is some variation in the price of Ricordea depending on coloration, size, and other factors, the aggregate retail value of illegal Ricordea shipped by Vargas was worth at least $90,000.
Vargas will be sentenced at a future date designated by the court. Torres pleaded guilty to similar charges on June 9, 2020. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 8, 2020.
This case was investigated as part of Operation Rock Bottom and Operation Borinquen Chisel by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with support from the USFWS Inspectors. The case is being prosecuted by Christopher L. Hale of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmen Marquez of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.