Tennessee Man Pleads Guilty to Lacey Act Violations
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 22, 2009
Leigh Anne Jordon, DOJ, 901-544-4231
Tom Mackenzie, Tom_MacKenzie@fws.gov, 404/679-7291
Jackson, TN -- William Salyers, 55 of Holladay, Tennessee, pled guilty on April 17, 2009, to various violations of the Lacey Act announced Lawrence J. Laurenzi, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. The conviction stems from the illegal harvest and sale in interstate commerce of undersized fresh water mussels and the falsification of records concerning those transactions.
Salyers was one of eight defendants indicted in August 2006 after a multi-year joint undercover investigation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with assistance from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The investigation (dubbed: Operation Board) was launched to address the poaching of undersized freshwater mussels and the export of those mussels out of the United States.
According to the indictment and testimony in court, the fresh water mussel shell industry is a multi-million dollar industry which extends throughout the United States. The majority of mussels harvested and exported come from the waters of Tennessee and surrounding states. The shells of fresh water mussels harvested from Tennessee, Alabama and other states are exported to Japan and other countries were they are used in the cultured pearl industry. The mussel shells are cut and ground to produce round beads. The beads are implanted into salt water oysters and fresh water mussels in order to grow a cultured pearl.
The washboard mussel is one of the three most highly sought mussel species for pearl cultivation. In this case, investigators documented that 75,000 pounds of illegal undersized washboard mussel shells with a retail value of over $230,000 had been exported to Japan during a two-year period. Information discovered during the investigation indicates that as many as 140,000 pounds of illegal washboard mussel shells valued at over $400,000 were exported to Japan during the same two-year period.
According to Don Hubbs, Mussel Program Coordinator with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, freshwater mussels play an important role in freshwater ecosystems; they are the biological filter for streams, rivers and lakes. Mussels are a source of food for many species of fish, muskrats, raccoons, and otters as well as waterfowl. They remove large amounts of sediment and contaminants from the water by filter-feeding. Because many mussel species can live for more than 20 years, scientists use mussels as indicators of environmental health and to track pollution levels. The shells left behind by dead mussels provide substrate and cover for other aquatic invertebrates and spawning and cover sites for small fish species.
The commercial mussel shell industry is an important source of jobs to rural economies. Harvested shells are processed and graded before being shipped overseas for use in the cultured pearl industry. Minimum size-limits are the main management strategy used to regulate the fishery, and are intended to provide mussels several opportunities to produce offspring before they are harvested. Adherence to minimum size-limits plays critical roles in the management of a commercial mussel fishery to ensure an adequate number of mussels remain to support the population.
Analysis provided by Hubbs revealed that 75,000 pounds of undersized washboard mussel shells represents approximately 130,000 individual mussels and 140,000 pounds of undersized washboard mussel shells would represent approximately 240,000 individual mussels. A conservative estimate for the replacement cost for 75,000 to 140,000 pounds would be approximately $900,000 to $1,800,000.
Seven other defendants who were named in the same indictment have been found guilty or pled guilty to felony violations of the Lacey Act. Two of those defendants, Billy Bruce, 52 of Camden, Tennessee and Pamela Salyers, 55 of Holladay, Tennessee, were found guilty during a trial which ended in December 2008. The defendants face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count of conviction.
The sentencing for the defendants is scheduled for April and July. Assistant United States Attorney Leigh Grinalds is handling the case for the government.