Man sells 74 baby sharks caught in Florida waters

It remains to be seen whether a California man accused of buying and selling juvenile nurse sharks illegally trapped in the Florida Keys will go to trial on the West Coast or in Key West.

Dean Trinh, 43, of Milpitas, Calif., just north of San Jose, faces 30 years in prison if convicted on five counts of illegal purchase and sale of sharks (he allegedly didn’t have a permit) and one count of conspiracy, according to federal court records.

Trinh was charged on June 7 on those allegations stemming from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration investigation out of the Florida Keys, but Trinh was also indicted federally on May 23 in California in a similar case involving protected leopard sharks.

In both cases, Trinh is accused of using his business, AquatopUSA, to sell the fish for display in aquariums.

In the California case, Trinh is charged with three counts of violating the Lacey Act, which makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell or purchase in interstate commerce any wildlife protected at the state level.

He also faces seven charges of wire fraud by falsely stating on wildlife forms that the leopard sharks were at least 36 inches in length, as is required by California law.

Trinh pleaded not guilty to the charges out of California on June 7 and was released from custody on a $50,000 property bond, according to court records.

He is tentatively scheduled to appear in court on June 25 in California. Whether or not he is extradited to Key West to face the charges out of Florida remains to be seen.

California prosecutors filed paperwork in court stating they intend to seize Trinh’s fishing boat, Shark Hunter and his 2005 Toyota Tundra pickup truck.

It also remains unclear if federal prosecutors will combine the cases or try them separately, said NOAA law enforcement officer Ken Blackburn.

The Keys-based charges stem from 74 juvenile nurse sharks that the government alleges came from Marathon-based commercial lobster fisherman Allan Wagner between August 2009 and August, 2012.

Wagner subsequently died in April of natural causes.

The case comes after two Idaho aquarium-based businessmen were arrested in March for allegedly buying $6,300 worth of live lemon sharks and eagle rays from the Florida Keys.

The case against Ammon Covino, 39, and Christopher Conk, 40, is pending.

The pair operate a business called Idaho Aquarium Inc. based in Boise, Idaho. Both men were arrested Feb. 21; they face a maximum of 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King sentenced the Aquatic Trading Co. in Pompano Beach to pay $3,000 in fines and ordered the company to surrender all its Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licenses, permits and endorsements.

The owners in the case, Walter and Lila Bloecker, were earlier sentenced to 90 days home confinement and a year probation on April 18.

Federal investigators said the couple conspired with Keys divers to illegally harvest juvenile nurse sharks and other protected fish from Monroe County waters.

They allegedly bought Florida Keys’ nurse shark pups and oversized angelfish to sell to a business owner in Michigan from June 16 to Oct. 31, 2012.

All the aquarium fish cases were filed as violations of the Lacey Act, the same federal law that investigators and prosecutors have cited in recent years in their war against lobster fishermen who illegally use artificial habitats known as casitas.

The same prosecutor in the casita cases, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald of the federal Southern District of Florida, is also handling the aquarium cases out of the Keys.

NOAA Fisheries Special Agents Blackburn and John O’Malley ask that anyone with information about the illegal tropical and aquarium fish trade in the Florida Keys call them at 305-743-3110.

alinhardt@keynsews.com

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