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Forbes states that:

Abner Schoenwetter was importing seafood to sell to U.S. restaurants for over 12 years from Honduras. Those shipments were overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who inspected the shipments and found everything in order, including the plastic bags used to ship the frozen Caribbean lobsters (see the U.S. Department of Justice Charges here). That plastic, and not a box, is a "no-no" according to the Lacey Act which was enforced by another U.S. government entity, National Marine Fishery Service. Schoenwetter was prosecuted and was sentenced to 8 years in federal prison, which he completed in August of 2010 (he's still on probation).

A similar claim is made by The Heritage Foundation:

Four people, caught in the government's net, face as many as eight years in prison because U.S. officials have decided to prosecute them for alleged violations of the Lacey Act, a law that permits the government to indict individuals for importing "fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of ... any foreign law." On top of that, the government seized the entire shipment -- more than $4 million worth of lobsters.

Unfortunately the link to the US Department of Justice is no longer available and I consider the claim outrageous if true, and both Forbes and The Heritage Foundation are at least somewhat biased. So is it true that Abner Schoenwetter spent 6.5 years in jail for importing lobsters in plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes?

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  • 32
    Possibly useful article here. "'The notion the case was about packaging is incorrect,' [the prosecutor] said. 'Packaging was the means by which the crime was concealed. It was the mechanism to conceal the extent of overharvesting.'"
    – benrg
    Apr 24 at 17:21
  • 2
    @phyrfox That's were I first heard about the case..Also I already contacted John Stossel, which is the journalist in the video..
    – Rubus
    Apr 25 at 12:01
  • 1
    Comments here are for clarifying the question. Everything else is either the substance of an answer or doesn't belong at all.
    – fredsbend
    Apr 25 at 15:26
  • 17
    Notably not “Forbes” making that claim, it’s a blog post by someone hosted on Forbes’ domain. Apr 25 at 15:30
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    Re "Unfortunately the link to the US Department of Justice is no longer available", a go-to place for finding web pages that no longer exist is archive.org. The referenced page was indeed archived. You can read it here. Apr 25 at 22:01
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To summarize: Honduras has regulations about what lobsters can be fished (to prevent over-exploitation). The defendants knowingly broke these regulations and then tried to hide their illegal activities by breaking more laws to smuggle the lobsters into the US.


Archive.org has the DoJ article. According to that, the Lacey Act states that fish/wildlife can’t be imported/sold/etc if foreign laws were broken. The relevant Honduran laws cited in the case are:

  1. Resolution 030-95 prohibited harvesting, processing, or selling any spiny lobster with a tail length shorter than 5 1/2 inches
  2. Article 70(3) of the Fishing Law prohibited harvesting or selling egg-bearing lobsters
  3. Article 30 of the Fishing Law required lobster fishermen to dock their vessels and unload their catch in a Honduran port before exportation
  4. Articles 35 and 37 of the Fishing Law required fishing vessels to report their catch in writing to Honduran authorities
  5. Agreement 0008-93 required that any lobster be inspected and processed in Honduras before exportation.

The fact that the lobsters were in bags and not boxes was only briefly mentioned. No law was mentioned here, so it doesn’t seem to have had much or any impact on the case.

In the end, the DoJ reports the charges were:

Following a jury trial, all four petitioners were convicted of conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. 371 for their part in the unlawful importation scheme. McNab, Blandford, and Schoenwetter were convicted of knowingly importing merchandise into the United States contrary to law in violation of 18 U.S.C. 545. [...] In total, McNab was found guilty on 28 counts, Blandford on 37 counts, Schoenwetter on 7 counts, and Huang on 17 counts.

The referenced laws from that section are:

See also

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    From the last link, the bags vs boxes issue was mentioned to support the idea that legally processed lobster were usually shipped in boxes, so the bags looked suspicious in that context.
    – Fizz
    Apr 25 at 19:46
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    Shorter than 5 1/2 inches...Interesting that it wouldn't be in centimeters (unless the Honduran law actually states 14 cm in reality). Apr 25 at 21:06
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    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket even if the law predates metric system - why would Honduras use british units? Spain and its colonies had their own measurement system, AFAIK. Apr 26 at 5:22
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    @DanilaSmirnov I found a 20-year-old document in the FAO site describing the different Hondurean laws and regulations about fishing. It is written in what looks to me (a Spaniard) as original Spanish, i.e. not translated from an English source. Despite this, and while the minimum sizes for some species are listed in centimeters (e.g. queen conch: 22 cm, quuen helmet: 15 cm), the minimun size for lobster specifically is mentioned as the first ever to be regulated (1983) and given in inches: 8" total length, 5" tail length.
    – walen
    Apr 26 at 7:35
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    fantastic info, @walen thanks !
    – Fattie
    Apr 26 at 13:02
1

Yes, but only as one of the charges and the fact that the lobster tails were undersized was considered the bigger issue(however, he could technically have been jailed just for the bags).

Prosecutors insist the packaging issue is misleading at best, in part because the primary basis of the prosecution was on the size of the lobster tails, not on the packaging.

However, the actual bigger scandal here, is the fact that the Honduran government filed a friend of the court brief in support of the accused and outright stated that the law they broke was out-dated and they didn't care about the bags or the length was irrelevant, is the real scandal here IMO:

during briefing on petitioners' second set of appeals, the Embassy of Honduras and the Asociacion de Pescadores del Caribe, a Honduran trade association, filed a joint amicus curiae brief in support of McNab. Id. at 20a n.23 Although Honduran officials had assisted and supported the prosecution throughout the investigation and trial of this case, the Embassy and trade association's brief maintained that certain of the Honduran laws underlying petitioners' convictions were invalid at the time of the lobster shipments or had been repealed and that the United States had failed to consult with the proper Honduran officials and, instead, had intentionally sought out "midlevel employees who were not authorized to render opinions on behalf of the Honduran government":https://web.archive.org/web/20141013050053/http://www.justice.gov/osg/briefs/2003/0responses/2003-0622.resp.html

The US court ruled that since US officials had confirmed with some Honduran officials that the laws were on the books, the conviction could stand. The world is full of ancient forgotten about laws that stick around on the books, unenforced for decades, because it's too much bother to update them, or people are confused as to what the law actually is. E.g. it's still, in 2021, technically illegal to play games or cards on a Sunday in Alabama Max $100 fine or 3 months of hard labor, which gives you a clue as to when that law was written.

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  • It is not illegal to play games or cards. You're posting outdated laws.
    – pipe
    Apr 27 at 20:44
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    You have no references fior the first half of the first sentence, which is the onky part that answers the question. The rewt of this answer is a political opiniin, whuch is off topic here. The only reference you do have doesn't support your argument.
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 27 at 22:03
  • @pipe that's the whole point. The law is outdated and un-enforced for decades, but it is still on the books and technically valid law. If this was a foreign environmental law, you could get prosecuted under the Lacy Act, according to the 11th circuit Court of Appeals' logic.
    – Eugene
    Apr 28 at 9:28
  • @Oddthinking, updated with references
    – Eugene
    Apr 28 at 9:32
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    It appears "still, in 2014" would be correct about the Alabama law (and still demonstrates your point) but not 2021. The very site you link says it was repealed in 2015.
    – Dan Getz
    Apr 28 at 10:31

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