TBT - The Trouble With Turtle Meat.

Last week I covered an adventure I had with Jim Lamarque when we tried to bring his pet parrots from Honduras into the U.S. That did not go well. And neither did Jim's fishing trip to Venezuela in 1993.

I was on a flight to Florida from Micronesia and picked up a newspaper on the plane to peruse and there was an article about Jim and two other sports fishermen being kidnapped while fishing for Peacock Bass in a remote area of Venezuela. A couple years later I was able to contact Jim's brother who told me they were able to pay the ransom and get Jim back. Now that has got to be a great story!

But today's story once again involves Special Agent Tom McKay of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agent that gave Jim and I so much grief in the last story. To be fair - the majority of F&W Agents, Customs Agents, and Game Wardens I have met were good people - like you would hope to find in any law enforcement group. But Agent McKay was one of those who's ambitions do not recognize fair play and reputable conduct.

The event where Agent MaKay got his wrist slapped hard happened in 1980. A Mexican seafood company had been buying up some of the sea turtle meat produced on the Pacific coast of Mexico and air freighting it to the Cuban market in Miami. They were able to circumvent the prohibition of sea turtle imports to the U.S. by labeling the meat as fresh water turtle - there being a large lake species of turtle found in Mexico, so they used that scientific name on the documents.

The business for the turtle meat increased and the exporters put together a large refrigerated shipment for overland transport through Brownsville, Texas, to Florida. When the truck and refrigerated trailer stopped for inspection at the Brownsville US Customs station the paperwork was in order - but the Mexican truck driver was speaking in Spanish to the US Customs guys and calling the shipment 'Caguama', which Mexicans call sea turtle, and not using the more common word for fresh water turtle in Mexico - 'Tortuga'. So they called Special Fish and Wildlife Agent McKay.

McKay immediately sized the shipment and ordered it hauled to a bonded refrigerated warehouse until it could be determined if it was legal (fresh water) or illegal (salt water) turtle meat.

I personally knew the US seafood importer involved with the shipment and phoned him on occasion to talk about the progress of the case. We knew it was serious when they finally convened a grand jury to prosecute him, one year after the seizure of the turtle meat.

So here is the rest of the story.

At the trial there was my buddy and his attorney at the defendant's table, and Special F&W Agent Tom McKay with the government's prosecuting attorney at the other table. When the judge asked what the prosecution had he had to offer, the prosecutor called for a marine biologist to take the stand. The prosecutor then asked the biologist if he had examined the contents of the two coolers on the evidence table. The biologist said he had and that they both contained the flesh of sea turtles. One container was a frozen sample from the seized shipment, and the other container had fresh sea turtle meat.

After more questions about the biologist's credentials, etc. it was finally the defense attorney's turn to ask questions. "Where and how did you acquire the fresh sea turtle meat?".

The biologist replied: "Agent McKay and myself crossed over into Matamoros, Mexico and bought it in the fresh market".

The defense attorney said: "As I understand the Endangered Species Act in this case - it is illegal for anyone to bring sea turtle meat into the United States. So by what means or agency did you and Wildlife Officer McKay manage to bring the sample of fresh turtle meat from Mexico into this country?"

The biologist: "Well - we just walked it across the border in our small cooler".

Defense attorney: "Your honor?".

So the judge read Special Agent McKay the riot act. "The US constitution clearly states that no government agency is above the law and all agencies must abide by the same regulations as applied to all citizens. In plain English - you can not break the law to enforce the law. Special Agent McKay, you have committed an unconstitutional act in the prosecution of this case and the court will not tolerate such actions".

"Case dismissed".

'Its not so much as to what you say - as HOW you say it.
Its not so much as to what you do - as HOW you do it.'
BRM