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Prosecution of illegal sales of wildlife resources

Milwaukee residents may make purchasing decisions based upon information about a product's source. For instance, some consumers refuse to buy genetically modified foods or clothing manufactured in countries where sweatshops are prevalent. Individuals and companies must obtain, manufacture and sell plant and animal resources legally.

Stories we hear and read about wildlife trafficking typically involve violations like sales of elephant ivory or animal skins, but many cases often aren't that exotic. Traffic International, a global organization concerned with unlawful wildlife trade, reported the estimated value of illegal fisheries worldwide was between $10 billion and $23 billion, a substantial chunk of an industry that was worth over $100 billion in 2009.

How close to home are cases like this? In 2012, U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife initiated an undercover investigation into a Sturgeon Bay company, accused of processing, selling and exporting illegally obtained fish from the Great Lakes. Undercover federal agents posed as wholesalers for two years before search warrants were issued for the business and its fish suppliers, including tribal and non-tribal fish dealers.

Investigators said the Wisconsin defendant bought almost $150,000 worth of whitefish, trout, sturgeon and walleye from the government fish store agents over 19 months. About half those sales involved fish harvested illegally.

The defendants were charged under the federal Lacey Act, designed to protect the decimation of threatened plant and animal species. A sentence for a single conviction for illegal fish sales, valued at $350 or more, can include a prison term of up to five years. Wildlife trafficking defendants in federal cases often face serious additional charges like conspiracy and money laundering.

A defendant's intentions play a large part in criminal cases. A verdict may hinge upon the prosecution's ability to show a defendant purposefully violated a law, like the Lacey Act, or a criminal defense attorney's evidence showing the defendant did not break a law intentionally.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, "Wildlife Trafficking," accessed July 29, 2015

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