Two charged with taking protected live sharks from the Keys

For the second time in weeks, federal prosecutors have ordered the arrest of people for illegally taking live sharks out of the Florida Keys.

Two officials of Idaho Aquarium Inc. in Boise were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and illegally purchasing four spotted eagle rays and two lemon sharks, all protected species and all from Keys waters.

Ammon Covino, 39, president of Idaho Aquarium, and corporate secretary Christopher Conk, 40, were arraigned late last week in Idaho and ordered to appear in U.S. District Court in Key West on March 15.

The Idaho Aquarium is a display facility covering 10,000 square feet operating in a converted Boise warehouse. Listed as a nonprofit educational center, the aquarium opened in late 2011. It claims to offer "over 250 different species of animals and marine life" for the $9 adult admission fee.

The indictment from November was unsealed this month.

On Feb. 7, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami unsealed a separate indictment against two Broward County aquarium suppliers. They were charged with conspiracy to acquire and resell juvenile nurse sharks without a required permit, and angelfish larger than the maximum size allowed. Those fish from the Keys allegedly were sold to a Michigan buyer.

"While both cases relate to the marine living resources of the Florida Keys and involve violations of the Lacey Act, predicated in part on [Florida law], there is no public record material to suggest there is any other relationship between the cases," said Alicia Valle, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In the indictment against Idaho Aquarium and its officials, prosecutor Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald wrote that the defendants knowingly conspired with fish collectors in the Keys to have the rays and sharks captured without permits and shipped north.

After being offered $1,250 for each live eagle ray, an unnamed fish collector eventually told Covino that permits needed to take the rays could not be obtained. Covino reportedly answered, "Just start doing it.... Who gives a ...".

The collector reportedly shipped three eagle rays in May 2012 and another in June 2012. All were sent to Covino at the Idaho Aquarium.

A second unnamed collector reportedly was solicited by Conk in June for two lemon sharks. The collector said no capture permits for lemon sharks are being issued so "the transaction would have to be conducted on the 'down low,' " the indictment says.

In a later conversation, Covino is accused of saying the lack of permits for the lemon sharks was "no big deal." The lemon sharks were purchased for $650 each and sent to Idaho in October.

Neither collector was named in the indictment.

According to the U.S. District Court documents, Covino and Conk could receive prison terms of up to five years on each of four counts.

The Idaho Aquarium could be fined $500,000. The government is seeking to seize Conk's 2005 Ford pickup truck, reportedly used to transport the fish from an airport.

Read more Florida Keys stories from the Miami Herald

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