MIAMI – The attorney for a Florida Keys couple accused of illegally buying and selling sharks said it’s possible a plea deal may be reached in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez on July 11.
A federal grand jury indicted Leah and Phil Gould of Big Pine Key, who operate Florida Keys Marine Life, on charges of illegal purchase and sale of wildlife of more than $350. If found guilty, they face five years in federal prison.
“Leah and her husband have been charged by the U.S. District Office Southern District for violating the Lacey Act,” attorney Jerome Ballarotto said.
Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of U.S. or Indian law; or in interstate or foreign commerce involving any fish, wildlife, or plants taken possessed or sold in violation of state or foreign law.
The law covers all fish and wildlife and their parts or products, plants protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and those protected by state law. Commercial guiding and outfitting are considered to be a sale under the provisions of the act.
“The crux of the case is that under the current state of the law they have an obligation to ensure and confirm that any person that buys or sells sharks in regard to interstate commerce is properly licensed,” Ballarotto said. “The government alleges that the people who sold them the sharks do not have the requisite license.”
Ballarotto was asked if this was going to be a change of plea hearing and he said: “It depends on our conversation that we have with the U.S. attorney's office. We'll see.”
The indictment stated the sale of 19 bonnethead sharks were traced by authorities in 2012, which resulted in $9,000 in sales. The Goulds were charged with buying and selling the sharks as well as transporting them to Missouri and Georgia in 2012.
The indictment also alleged the couple also bought and sold baby sharks.
According to the Key West Citizen, Leah Gould served as an alternate member of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, but resigned when the investigation began.
Leah Gould responded to accusations with a letter to the editor published May 3 in a blog published on bigpinekey.com.
“NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is prosecuting us as you know from these articles,” the Goulds wrote. “Although I can’t go into specifics I can tell you we were in no way trying to skirt any laws intentionally. Many of you who know us know we are passionate about our work and protecting the environment. Please do not believe all that you may read in the media regarding this case. Phil and I are always happy to answer any questions you may have.”
Sean Morton, the superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, declined comment, referring inquiries to Ally Rogers with NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement. Rogers could not be reached for comment.
On its website, Florida Keys Marine Life says it is a team of commercial divers, marine livestock specialists and system engineers.
“We supply pet stores, wholesale dealers and public aquariums with saltwater fish and marine invertebrates,” the website said. “Together we have over 50 years of cumulative experience in commercial diving, aquaculture, sustainable marine husbandry and successful participation in the management of the habitat and species of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“We love the Florida Keys and the delicate eco-system of ocean waters we dive in and explore every day. We want to share our enthusiasm for this unique and precious environment by bringing you and your customers the very best quality, sustainably harvested, saltwater fish, ricordia and invertebrates.”