A federal district judge in Miami has sentenced Michael Van Nostrand, 55, of Davie, Florida, and Strictly Reptiles, Inc., a company also located in Davie, for their roles in a scheme to unlawfully enrich themselves and others by smuggling illegally-harvested Florida turtles out of the United States and into China, Japan, and other places.
According to court records, from approximately April 2017 through April 2019 the defendants and their co-conspirators established a network of “collectors” to capture specimens of various wild fresh-water turtles within the State of Florida.
They then marketed and sold the turtles as “captive bred” to both domestic and international customers to provide the appearance the turtles were legally obtained.
“The illegal trade of wildlife, and in particular turtles, is a significant threat to biodiversity worldwide. The investigative work being conducted by FWC law enforcement and our USFWS and DOJ partners is not only commendable but it is also a critical component to conserving our natural resources,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Executive Director Eric Sutton.
In text messages, Van Nostrand repeatedly exhorted his suppliers to acquire more of the principal species: Florida three-stripe mud turtles (Kinosternon baurii) for his company. To complete the scheme and evade detection, the coconspirators would falsely mark required federal export declarations with a code denoting the turtles were captive-bred, rather than wild-caught.
An investigation conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service documented the illegal acquisition and sale of approximately 3,500 of Florida fresh-water turtles.
“Through partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice, we’re committed to stopping those who are engaged in illegal wildlife trafficking,” said Lt. Col. Gregg Eason, FWC Division of Law Enforcement.
Michael Van Nostrand was sentenced to seven months in prison, followed by a term of supervised release of three years, the first year of which will be served in home confinement. In addition, the Court ordered Van Nostrand to immediately pay a $100,000 fine to the Lacey Act Reward Fund and restricted Van Nostrand’s freedom to engage in the wildlife trade during the period of supervised release.
During the sentencing hearing, the Court cited Van Nostrand’s compromised health (which was the subject of several filings and courtroom arguments) as the sole reason for not imposing a higher sentence.
Strictly Reptiles, Inc. was sentenced to a term of five years’ probation, a fine of $150,000 also payable immediately to the Lacey Act Reward Fund, and oversight by an independent monitor/auditor, to be selected and appointed with the court’s approval.
The Lacey Act Reward Fund is a Congressionally authorized fund available to pay for the care, treatment, and rehabilitation of wildlife pending their disposition at the conclusion of civil and criminal matters and to compensate witnesses and cooperators in criminal investigations.
In pleadings and courtroom statements, the government noted that significant pressure is being placed on native species – especially turtles and tortoises – throughout the United States to satisfy the black-market pet trade, and that the United States is facing the specter of some species becoming extinct in the wild because of illegal poaching activities. The State of Florida has restricted the commercialization of wild-caught turtles since 2009 as part of its conservation effort.