Woman ‘punished’ on social media for biosecurity breach

A woman who imported unauthorised Marimo moss balls into New Zealand has been the victim of “an Internet lynch mob”, her Christchurch District Court sentencing was told.

“It is obscene what’s happened to her,” said Judge Jane Farish at the sentencing of Raquel Elise Miranda.

Miranda had to close her art business because of the social media backlash after her trial in March. The stress and threats had led to the loss of her relationship and her home and she was now staying with friends.

She feared that convictions under the Biosecurity Act would prevent her being able to travel back to Brazil to visit family.

Judge Farish made it clear she believed the Ministry of Primary Industries had overstated the risk from the moss balls, which were sold by Miranda online through Trademe and at stalls in Christchurch over the 2015-16 summer.

The 38-year-old artist sought a discharge without conviction on three charges of obtaining a new organism and failing to tell the Ministry of its presence, recklessly obtaining the unauthorised organisms, and selling them.

Judge Farish found the charges proved at a judge-alone trial in March but acquitted Miranda on a charge of making a misleading statement to MPI biosecurity inspectors.

At the time of the trial, 11 of the moss balls she had sold through her Arte Viva Living Art venture had been recovered but three remained unaccounted for. The moss balls are used in fish tanks and terrariums.

The trial was told by MPI witnesses that the moss balls had the potential to ruin the lakes and rivers of New Zealand if they were allowed to be introduced, and even a small particle posed a risk.

However, a NIWA scientist’s report since then said that they were less of a risk. The moss balls were a dying species in the lakes where they were found naturally. Contamination in New Zealand would only happen if there was “direct human intervention”. There was a low potential risk of the algae spreading and doing damage to New Zealand’s lakes and lagoons.

“The things that have happened to her have been outrageous,” said the judge, referring to a “social media lynch mob” which had arrayed itself against her after the hearing.

She urged the MPI to use the case as an “educational opportunity” by putting additional information on its websites to ensure people realised that only the species listed there could be brought into New Zealand. She described the Ministry’s websites as “quite impenetrable”.

The moss balls were still being advertised for sale within New Zealand, but on an overseas-based website, she noted. The moss balls were becoming rare in some areas, and were “treasured” in Japan.

There was little information on their potential effect as a invasive species in New Zealand. The new scientific report said the moss balls were unlikely to obscure other vegetation, and were unlikely to spread to other waterways without human intervention.

“The risk to New Zealand is not as great as what was originally made out,” said Judge Farish.

However, the MPI prosecutor, Grant Fletcher, rejected the application by defence counsel Nicola Hansen for a discharge without conviction for Miranda.

Mr Fletcher said: “The Ministry is charged with defending the biosecurity of this country and will always take a zero-tolerance approach.”

Judge Farish said Miranda had taken steps to retrieve the moss balls that were in the terrariums she had sold. She had imported the moss balls through an overseas website, and had not taken all the steps she could to ascertain whether there was a risk.

Because of the need for deterrence under the Biosecurity Act, she felt there should not be a discharge without conviction. But she convicted and discharged Miranda without any further penalty. “All the punishment has already been meted out to you by the social media,” said the judge.

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