Wednesday, October 27, 1999
NEW YORK (AP)
It's a multimillion-dollar plot stretching from Eastern Europe to the United States. Another Russian money laundering scandal? A heroin ring? No, it's caviar -- thousands of pounds of Russian sturgeon roe allegedly smuggled in suitcases, bound for New York City's gourmet stores.
Twobusinessmen are on trial in Brooklyn federal court in a case that highlights an international endangered-species law and the lucrative black market for the world's finest fish eggs. Eugeniusz Koczuk, the 48-year-old owner of an import company called Gino International, and his associate Wieslaw Rozbicki, 37, are the first people to be prosecuted under new provisions in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They could get five years in prison and be forced to forfeit $2 million if convicted.
Prosecutors say the caviar the men imported was a protected wildlife product that should have been declared to the proper agencies. Defense attorneys call the case overkill and say their clients are honest importers caught in a complex regulatory web. Rozbicki is "bewildered and feeling quite overwhelmed by all of this," said his lawyer, Roger Adler.
Under provisions of the endangered species agreement, which involves the United States and 142 other countries, three types of Caspian Sea sturgeon were added to a list of threatened animals. For centuries, the sturgeons' eggs have been harvested to produce prized beluga caviar, as well as lower-grade sevruga and osetra caviar.
Since last April, anyone carrying more than a half-pound of caviar into the United States must produce permits showing it was legally harvested. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has begun DNA-testing caviar shipments to make sure they really contain the premium varieties like beluga, which retails for about $80 an ounce in the United States.
The regulations are aimed reversing a 70 percent drop in the population of Caspian Sea sturgeon over the last 20 years.
Before the rules went into effect last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service held a seminar for importers and retailers. Koczuk and Rozbicki, who worked out of Koczuk's Connecticut home, signed up.
But investigators say they ignored the restrictions and instead paid off-duty Polish airline employees $500 each to smuggle tins of Caspian caviar in their luggage on flights from Poland to New York. Records show the company sold 19,000 pounds of caviar for millions of dollars between April and November of l998. During that period, the defendants received permission to import only 88 pounds, prosecutors said.
The alleged scheme began to unravel when investigators got a tip that seven couriers would be arriving from Warsaw last October. The suspects were met by federal agents, who found "caviar, and nothing but caviar" in 16 suitcases, 1,000 pounds in all -- prosecutor Cynthia Monaco said.
A week later, agents raided Koczuk's home and seized another 1,000 pounds of allegedly smuggled caviar from refrigerators in the garage. Koczuk's attorney, Andrew Bowman, told jurors the defendant had obtained a proper permit, but someone in Poland failed to forward it. "There is nothing that says that if you are in possession of caviar or you eat caviar or you sell caviar, you are in violation of the law," he said.
The genetic changes occurring in endangered species might increase their extinction probabilities. Low population sizes leads to reduced genetic diversity and increased inbreeding. A low of genetic diversity means a reduced ability to adapt to environmental changes. Inbreeding is often associated to reduced reproduction and survival. Genetic factors might thus play an important role in species extinction -and therefore in their conservation.
Molecular genetic markers are often used to assess the genetic status of endangered species and populations. This information is then used to elaborate conservation plans designed to maximize genetic diversity and minimize inbreeding.