A New York aquarium dealer has been indicted on charges of buying and selling protected wildlife from Florida Keys waters.
Jonathan Hale, CEO of Country Critters of Patchogue, N.Y., was charged Nov. 15 with the sale or purchase of illegally harvested wildlife, according to a federal indictment that was unsealed Thursday.
Hale is accused of buying live coral rock taken from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary from an unnamed harvester in Marathon on Sept. 30, according to the indictment.
The indictment alleges the transaction was done without a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Court papers state the coral rock had a "market value in excess of $350."
Hale faces five years in prison if convicted.
He is the latest defendant to be named in the federal government's investigation into the illegal harvest and sale of protected wildlife, such as sharks and corals lifted from the Keys.
NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents have been building a body of cases that originate in Monroe County and extend to New York and California.
NOAA law enforcement agent Ken Blackburn and Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald declined to comment on the specifics of the case Monday, citing the ongoing investigation.
The scale of the investigation became public on Feb. 21 with the arrest of business owners Ammon Covino, 39, and Christopher Conk, 40, of Idaho Aquarium Inc. in Boise, Idaho.
Both men are accused of buying $6,300 in live sharks and spotted eagle rays from the Florida Keys.
Nurse and lemon sharks, as well as eagle rays, are protected under Florida law. Both men face a maximum of 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Both men and their company were indicted on four charges of conspiracy to violate, and 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.
Conk was already serving six years of supervised probation after pleading guilty in 2011 to shipping and selling live coral to buyers around the world, according to federal court records.
On July 24, a federal jury in Key West convicted Ammon Covino's nephew, Peter Covino IV, 20, of Eagle, Idaho, of destroying evidence for his uncle.
Peter Covino canceled a shipment of nurse sharks and rays and destroyed texts, emails and other communications between two Keys men and Ammon Covino.
The alleged sellers in the case -- Eric P. Pedersen, 51, and Serdar Ercan, 42, of Grassy Key, and their business, Key Marine Inc. -- were arraigned in federal court last month. Both were detained in lieu of $50,000 bail due to their June 28 arrest on charges they conspired to take, harvest, capture, transport and sell marine wildlife from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and state waters.
That case followed the June 7 arrest of Dean Trinh, 43, of Milpitas, Calif., who was charged with buying and selling juvenile nurse sharks illegally trapped in the Florida Keys, according to federal court records.
Trinh, who faces 30 years in prison, allegedly bought 74 sharks from the late Marathon-based commercial lobster fisherman Allan Wagner between August 2009 and August 2012. Wagner died in April of natural causes.
Trinh also had been indicted 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.
Whether or not he is extradited to the Keys remains to be seen.
In a similar case, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King on June 13 ordered the Pompano Beach-based Aquatic Trading Co. to pay $3,000 in fines and surrender all its Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licenses, permits and endorsements.
Owners Walter and Lila Bloecker had already been sentenced on April 18 to 90 days house arrest and one year probation.
Federal investigators said the couple conspired with Keys divers to illegally harvest juvenile nurse sharks and other protected fish from Monroe County waters from June 16 to Oct. 31, 2012.