Feds take a bite out of shark poachers

Outer Bamnks diving on the Great Escape Southern California Live-Aboard Dive Boat

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Posted by on February 10, 2006 at 00:16:17:

In Reply to: Poachers charged in Leopard shark case posted by Max Bottomtime on February 09, 2006 at 15:05:46:

Monterey Bay Aquarium Senior Aquarists Veronica Franklin (kneeling) and Julia Mariottini (standing) release young leopard sharks into the aquarium's Great Tide Pool in this photo from July 2004. The living sharks, which had been seized earlier in the month by federal wildlife officials as part of their investigation in the poaching/smuggling case, were first brought to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, then transferred to the Monterey Bay Aquarium as "living pieces of evidence" in the case. (Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder)

The federal government's jaws have clamped down upon a San Leandro pastor and four other Bay Area men accused of poaching and smuggling protected California leopard sharks from the bay, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

A federal grand jury indictment handed up Jan. 24 and unsealed Tuesday says the men conspired to violate the federal Lacey Act, which bans knowingly selling or buying fish against underlying law - in this case, a state law that prohibits taking California leopard sharks less than 36 inches long.

The indictment says the men schemed from 2000 through 2004 to harvest thousands of undersized sharks from the bay, and then sell and ship them to pet trade distributors across the country and in Europe. Specifically, about 465 juvenile leopard sharks were sold to companies in Miami; Chicago; Houston; Romulus, Mich.; Milford, Conn; the Netherlands; and the United Kingdom.

Among those indicted is the Rev. Kevin Thompson, 48, of San Leandro, pastor of the Bay Area Family Church on Washington Avenue in San Leandro, which is a ministry of the Holy Spirit Association - Unification Worldwide Church founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Prosecutors say Thompson and the church co-owned at least one boat used in the scheme, and that Thompson paid Ishikawa and another, unnamed fisherman to catch the sharks, later depositing some proceeds from the sharks' sales into his personal bank account.

Also indicted are:

  • John Newberry, 34, of Hayward, who worked at Pan Ocean Aquarium Inc. in Hayward and earlier was a commercial fisherman;
  • Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, a member of the Bay Area Family Church and a fisherman;
  • Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland, owner of Amazon Aquarium Inc. in Alameda;
  • Sion Lim, 39, of San Francisco, who owned Bayside Aquatics in Oakland; and,
  • Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa, a marine aquarium dealer who operated Indorica Fish Imports.

Thompson, Newberry, Ishikawa, Ng and Gass each are charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act. Also, Thompson and Newberry each face three counts, Ng faces two counts and Iskikawa, Lim and Gass each face one count of actually violating that law. The maximum penalties for each count are five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and payment of restitution.

Gass was arrested Monday in Los Angeles, appeared Tuesday in federal court there and went free on $50,000 bail; he must appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil in Oakland on Thursday.

The five Bay Area men were arrested and appeared Tuesday before Brazil, who released Thompson, Ishikawa, Ng and Lim on $100,000 bail each. Newberry was held in custody pending determination of his immigration status. All five are due back in court Monday.

A message left for Thompson at his church wasn't returned Wednesday. Ng said he would have his attorney contact a reporter but no such call was received, and a woman answering the phone at Gass' listing told a reporter it was the wrong number. Listings couldn't be found for Ishikawa and Lim.

California leopard sharks, named for their distinctive spots, are found in ocean waters along the Oregon, California and Baja California coasts. Their pups often are found in bays and estuaries from March through July, peaking in April and May. The live-born pups are about 10 inches long, and the sharks don't reach sexual maturity until seven to 13 years of age. The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports they can live up to 24 years and grow to lengths up to six and a half feet.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago helped authorities transport and care for 19 baby sharks confiscated in this case, ranging from eight and a half inches to 17 and a half inches. Nine were returned to the wild in the summer of 2004; three remain on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium; and seven died because of their poor condition at the time they were confiscated, prosecutors said.

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