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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mark L. Harrison, a resident of Southport, Fla., and Harrison International LLC, a Florida corporation, today pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Atlanta to violating the Lacey Act, a federal fish and wildlife trafficking law, by dealing in shark fins, the landing of which was not reported as required by law, the Justice Department announced today.
In addition, Mark Harrison pleaded guilty to a second charge related to his attempted export of shark fins of species that are prohibited to harvest under laws of the state of Florida. Harrison also pleaded guilty to a third charge related to trading in shark fins that had been prepared, packed or held under unsanitary conditions.
According to the charges and other information presented in court, Harrison allegedly represented himself to be the nation's largest shark fin buyer, purchasing "millions" of shark fins since he had been in the business, beginning in 1989. According to the plea agreements, in February 2005, Harrison purchased shark fins in Florida from an individual fisherman and later resold them in interstate commerce. No report of the landing or sale of those fins was filed with any Florida authorities, as required by law. Accurate reporting statistics of shark harvests are crucial for managing and regulating the populations of the various shark species that occur in U.S. waters.
In August 2007, Harrison attempted to export through Atlanta a shipment of shark fins that included at least 211 fins from Caribbean sharp-nosed sharks, two fins from bignose sharks, and two fins from night sharks, all of which are protected by Florida and/or federal laws due to their low population levels.
Finally, the plea agreements reveal that for almost four years Harrison processed shark fins by drying them on open air racks and/or tarpaulins laid on the ground, outdoors, on his property in Southport. The fins were left out at all times until dry and were exposed to bird droppings and insects. Dogs ran freely among the drying racks. Harrison would then sell the dried fins and ship them in interstate commerce through the Northern District of Georgia.
"Trafficking the fins of these shark species is not a harmless offense," said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "These species are protected in order to ensure their continued sustainability. The Justice Department, along with our partner agencies, will continue to prosecute those who illegally trade in protected shark or other wildlife species."
"We will not tolerate the illegal harvest and sale of protected shark species whose populations continue to diminish in our oceans," said Hal Robbins, Special Agent in Charge for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Southeast Region. "We are pleased with the apprehension of Mr. Harrison, who is one of the country's largest commercial shark fin buyers and I applaud the efforts of the prosecutors and Agents involved in this multi-agency federal investigation."
The Lacey Act, enacted in 1900, is the first national wildlife law, and was passed to assist states in enforcing wildlife laws. It provides additional protection to fish, wildlife and plants that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of state, tribal, foreign or U.S. law.
Since 1993, the NOAA Fisheries Service has managed, via federal fishery management plans, the commercial harvest and sale of sharks in or from federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. In 1998, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization finalized and adopted an "International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks," recognizing the worldwide pressure being placed on declining shark populations by commercial fishing and the demand for shark fin soup. U.S. management of sharks has included prohibitions against retaining and/or selling particular species, including some in which Harrison was dealing, the populations of which are so reduced that further harvesting cannot be sustained.. There are currently 19 federally protected species of sharks.
David E. Nahmias, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia said, "There is an immense trade in wildlife products. Those who trade in wildlife must comply with federal and state wildlife statutes and regulations. We will support the investigative work of those agencies who identify violations of these laws, and commend the teamwork of the investigators who brought these wildlife violations to our attention."
"We are proud of the coordinated investigative work of our agents with their colleagues from NOAA, Office of Law Enforcement and the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations," said James Gale, Special Agent in Charge, Southeast Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement. "This case is an excellent example of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's commitment to investigate and interdict the commercialization of protected wildlife species."
Harrison is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 19, 2009, at 9:30 a.m., before U.S. Magistrate Judge Russell Vineyard of the Northern District of Georgia. Harrison faces up to one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $100,000. His company faces a fine of $200,000.
This case was investigated by Special Agents of the NOAA Office for Law Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement and the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations.
The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Georgia and the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section.