Notice of Seizure!

by Gary Rosenberg
Someday soon you may receive a letter like this one, copied verbatim from one received by a COA member, except that names, places and dates have been changed:

This is to advise that the box of assorted mollusc shells imported by you via U.S. Custom - Foreign mailroom facility, New York, NY on January 14, 1997 has been seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reason for this action is that the described wildlife was imported in violation of Philippine export laws. The Lacey Act prohibits the importation of any wildlife or wildlife related manufactured products, in violation of any foreign law. Enclosed is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Abandonment form. By signing and returning this form you are abandoning the seized wildlife and agreeing to its forfeiture to the United States. This action may be used as a basis for compromising any assessment of monetary civil penalty as provided for in Title 50, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 11.11. You have ten days from the date of receipt of this letter in which to sign and return the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Abandonment form in the enclosed pre-addressed envelope. Failure to exercise this option will result in referral of the matter to the appropriate United States Attorney or Regional Solicitor for possible assessment of a civil penalty and/or forfeiture of the seized wildlife. If we can be of further assistance, please contact Wildlife Inspector Smith at the above address or telephone number.

Shell collectors need to be aware of the many legal perils of importing and exporting wildlife. What follows is not legal advice, it is just my attempt to understand the regulations in the United States Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 50. First some definitions, summarized from 50 CFR part 10.12, including revisions as published in the Federal Register 61(121):31850-31873 on June 21, 1996. Wildlife means any wild animal, alive or dead, including mollusks. Mollusk means any member of the phylum Mollusca, excluding fossils, and including manufactured and food products made from mollusks (there are special rules for pearls). Shellfish are aquatic invertebrates having a shell, including mollusks.

Here are some relevant sections of 50 CFR: No one may import or export any wildlife at any place other than a Customs Port of Entry (14.11). Designated ports are Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Honolulu, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, Dallas/Fort Worth, Portland, Baltimore, and Boston (14.12). Exceptions to the above can be made by permit (14.20), and for import or export from Alaska, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Guam. Wildlife lawfully taken by U.S. residents in the United States, Canada or Mexico and imported or exported for non-commercial purposes may be imported or exported at any Customs Port of Entry (14.16c). Except for endangered or threatened species, shellfish taken in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States or on the high seas for recreational purposes may enter or exit at any Customs Port of Entry (14.21). Dead wildlife specimens can be imported or exported by accredited scientists or scientific institutions at any U.S. Customs Port, or by international mail (14.24).

There are some obvious problems here. It becomes illegal to send shells for personal use through international mail if not through a designated port. But the sender and recipient have no control over what port the mail goes through -- that might depend on which airline has space available on what flight. A USFWS inspector in New York advised me that because of the way international mail is handled, their policy is that mail is not required to use designated ports. The inspector indicated, however, that technically one must still submit a Declaration for the Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife (Form 3-177) after import of specimens to the United States. In the case of export, Form 3-177 must be filed, except for wildlife that is not intended for sale where the value is under $250.

Form 3-177 is obtained from your district USFWS office, and filled out with the scientific names, number of specimens of each species (genus or family names can be used if species identification is unknown) and countries of origin. The form is then sent to the district office, which will send it back stamped cleared, once they have determined that none of the listed species is subject to special regulation, such as being on the endangered species list. A copy of the form is then included in the package to be exported. Even for packages valued under $250, a list of scientific names of species, number of specimens, and countires of origin should be included.

The rules are different for commercial import and export of wildlife, for which an import/export license is required. Until July 22, 1996, this license cost $125 per year, but was not required if total value of imports and exports exceeded $25,000. Now the license is $50 per year, but is required regardless of the value of commercial shipments. Licenses are obtained through the USFWS district where the applicant resides. If a shipment is subject to inspection, the license holder is normally charged $55; there is not usually a charge for inspection of non-commercial shipments. Commercial importers and exporters must get a permit to use non-designated ports. One of the criteria that the USFWS uses to determine whether a shipment is commercial or not is if it contains more than eight of the same kind of organism (presumably meaning species), but presumably this would apply to large shells individually wrapped, rather than vials or bags of small specimens.

In addition to complying with the U.S. rules for declaration when importing or exporting of wildlife, one must also comply with all local, state, federal and tribal laws in collecting and shipping specimens, as provided in the Lacey Act as amended in 1981. Thus, if a country requires an export permit for mollusks (e.g., the Philippines), a copy of that permit should be in the package that you import. If a country requires a collecting permit, a copy of that permit better be in the package. It can be almost impossible to find out laws for collecting and exporting mollusks in foreign countries, and one will often get contradictory answers. For example, I talked to three different U.S. Fish and Wildlife Inspectors in preparing this article, and got three different sets of interpretations of the designated port rule. (I've presented what seemed most consistent.)

There is one surprising way to get information about foreign laws -- file a declaration on Form 3-177 before the package is sent to you. You will not get clearance to import specimens if the USFWS is aware of permits that you need from the foreign country. Once the necessary permits have been obtained, hopefully by the person sending you the specimens, you can resubmit Form 3-177 with copies of the permits. Note that getting clearance to import does not mean that USFWS is certifying that you have complied with foreign laws, just that there is not evidence that you have broken any. Another good reason to file Form 3-177 is that it establishes that you have attempted to comply with the law. Some museums are now refusing to accept donated collections if the collector cannot document that specimens have been legally obtained. The intent of the USFWS seems to be only to close the loopholes smugglers have found in previous regulations. However, in closing the loopholes, they hinder some of the normal activities of collectors (and scientific researchers). If they intended to try to stop people from collecting shells, hundreds of thousands of international packages marked "Contents, seashells for scientific study, no commercial value" would already have been confiscated. Unfortunately, maintaining that paper trail takes some of the joy out of the hobby.

Department of Malacology, Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103.