Virginia Man Pleads Guilty to Trafficking in Illegally Imported Sperm Whale Teeth

Richard M. Ertel, of Spotsylvania, Va., pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., to the illegal importation and illegal trafficking of sperm whale teeth.

Ertel pleaded guilty to two felony violations of the Lacey Act for trading in endangered marine mammal parts. Sperm whales are classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is illegal to import parts of sperm whale teeth into the United States without the requisite permits and certifications, and without declaring the merchandise at the time of importation to U.S. Customs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sperm whale teeth are commonly used for scrimshaw and can fetch large sums of money from collectors and tourists. Scrimshaw, as defined by the ESA, is any art form which involves the substantial etching or engraving of designs upon, or the substantial carving of figures, patterns or designs from, any bone or tooth of any whale, dolphin or porpoise.

As part of the plea, Ertel admitted that from April 2002 to June 2007, he was in the business of buying and selling sperm whale teeth that he purchased from sources in the Ukraine, and then sold to customers in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States. He admitted to conducting much of his business via the Internet.

As a result of the felony conviction, Ertel could be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000 for each count. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2012.

The case was investigated by agents from the Law Enforcement Offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Maguire of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice.

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