Man Indicted for Trafficking in Illegally-Imported Sperm Whale Teeth

A Massachusetts man has been charged in U.S. District Court in Boston with crimes related to the illegal importation and illegal trafficking of sperm whale teeth, the Justice Department announced today.

On May 13, 2009, a federal grand jury sitting in Boston, returned an indictment that was unsealed today against David L. Place of Nantucket, Mass. The indictment charges Place with multiple counts of conspiracy and Lacey Act violations for buying and illegally importing sperm whale teeth into the United States, as well as selling the teeth after their illegal importation. Place was arrested this morning at his home on Nantucket.

The indictment alleges that from 2001 to 2004, Place knowingly purchased and imported sperm whale teeth into the United States in violation of federal law. 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 (CITES). It is illegal to import parts of sperm whale teeth into the United States without the requisite permits/certifications, and without declaring the merchandise at the time of importation to U.S. Customs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The indictment further alleges that Place conspired with persons located in Ukraine to illegally import the protected whale teeth for re-sale in the United States. Place owns Manor House Antiques Cooperative in Nantucket. Sperm whale teeth are commonly used for scrimshaw, and can fetch large sums of money from collectors and tourists. Scrimshaw as defined by the Endangered Species Act 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.

The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. If convicted of these charges, Place faces up to five years in prison on each of the most serious charges, as well as fines up to $250,000.