SAN SEBASTIAN, Puerto Rico — It was some truly fishy business.
The owner of a saltwater aquarium company in Puerto Rico has pleaded guilty to illegally smuggling protected coral reef marine creatures to customers in the United States.
Federal prosecutors say Luis Joel Vargas Martell would go snorkeling among Puerto Rico’s reefs and use a chisel to pry up a reef creature known as “rics,” “polyps” or “mushrooms” which are popular among home aquarium owners because they glow under ultraviolet light.
As the animals would attach themselves to the reef substrate, Vargas would end up breaking off parts of the coral in his efforts to remove them.
He would then send them to customers in the U.S. claiming they were inanimate objects.In all, prosecutors say Vargas sold $90,000 worth of the animals between 2014 and 2016.
It is illegal to harvest such creatures in Puerto Rico if the specimens are going to be sent off-island or otherwise sold commercially. On multiple occasions, Vargas would accompany his business partner, Raymond Torres, and they would snorkel from the shoreline in search of the animals.
Torres pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this year. Both await sentencing.