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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Conviction of Leopard Shark Poachers Results in $1.5 Million Fund to Help Restore  Shark Habitat in San Francisco Bay

Region 8, February 12, 2007
Special Agent Lisa Nichols returns a leopard shark pup seized by agents from an out of state pet dealer to the ocean. (USFWS Photo)Listen & read the National Public Radio story on the Web at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7379593
Special Agent Lisa Nichols returns a leopard shark pup seized by agents from an out of state pet dealer to the ocean. (USFWS Photo)
Listen & read the National Public Radio story on the Web at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7379593 - Photo Credit: n/a

MONTEREY, Calif. — Restitution and contributions collected as a result of a recent federal prosecution of a church-based poaching operation that removed thousands of undersized California leopard sharks from San Francisco Bay will be used to create a $1.5 million partnership fund that will help restore habitat for sharks and other wildlife, federal law enforcement officials announced today.

 

Speaking at a press conference at Monterey Bay Aquarium, United States Attorney Kevin V. Ryan joined representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to announce the partnership fund.  The fund includes a $500,000 contribution by the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC) which includes the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, and more than $410,000 in restitution assessed to its pastor, Kevin Thompson, and five co-defendants.   The California Coastal Conservancy will add $300,000 to the fund, and another $300,000 will be added through the combined contributions of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

 

“The prosecution of this case casts a bright light on the dark world of illegal worldwide trading in protected wildlife, said Paul Chang, Special Agent in Charge of the Service’s Pacific Region Law Enforcement Office in Portland., Ore. “These sharks were shipped illegally from California to profit-motivated dealers throughout the United States and Europe.  The work of our special agents here and across the country demonstrates that if you are buying or selling protected wildlife you will be caught, and you will pay a price for breaking wildlife laws."

 

California’s investigation, lead by Game Warden Rebecca Hartman, focused on Ira Gass of Azusa, Calif., who had continued poaching sharks, even after being previously prosecuted previously by the state for the illegal take and possession of undersized leopard sharks.  The Service started its investigation in 2003 when San Diego-based Special Agent Lisa Nichols received a tip that a group of people was harvesting leopard sharks at night from San Francisco Bay.  It wasn’t long until Nichols learned of similar poaching investigations by Special Agent Dave Kirkby in Illinois, and Special Agent Roy Torres of NOAA Marine Fisheries Service in Monterey.

 

“I got a call from Dave Kirkby in Chicago who told me the small sharks were showing up in Chicago and other places in the Midwest. Then I learned that Roy Torres was already in the middle of his own investigation in California,” Nichols recalled. “By sharing information we learned our cases were connected.”

 

The far-reaching, three-year investigation involved enforcement officers from California Department of Fish & Game, the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Fish Health Inspectorate and The Netherlands General Inspection Service (AID).  Service special agents in California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia and New York were also involved.

 

Nichols, a 13-year veteran of Service law enforcement, said good communication between the multiple agencies and agents was critical to the success of the investigation. “Communicating information to each other, ensuring each of us knew what the others were doing and in a way that wouldn’t alert the subjects was probably the most challenging part of the investigation,” she said.

 

While communication was important, it’s a memory of executing a court-ordered search of Thompson’s home with other agents in 2005 that is still with her.

 

“During our search we encountered incredible amounts of religious education materials that promoted morality, truth and ethical living,” recalled Nichols.  “I simply couldn’t understand how he could be preaching morality to his church members while at the same time he was knowingly leading an illegal poaching operation.  It still angers me today.” 

 

Thompson, 48, and five others were indicted on federal Lacey Act charges in January 2006.  The Lacey Act prohibits the interstate commercialization of wildlife taken in violation of state laws.  California law prohibits the possession, take, buying or selling of leopard sharks less than 36 inches in length.

 

Thompson later pleaded guilty to one Lacey Act charge, admitting that between 1992 and 2003, he led other church members in a scheme to illegally catch and sell undersized leopard sharks to aquarium dealers in the U.S., United Kingdom and the Netherlands.  In addition to paying $100,000 restitution, Thompson was sentenced January 22, to one year and one day in prison.

 

The five other defendants pleaded guilty to Lacey Act charges and admitted to the following in their plea agreements:

 

John Newberry, 34, of Hayward, Calif., was a member of the Church and worked at Pan Ocean Aquarium Inc.  He admitted that from 1992-2004, he and other church members fished for undersized leopard sharks using church vessels and stored the sharks at a facility located in San Leandro, owned by a business associated with the church.  Sharks were shipped out of Oakland and San Francisco airports for sale to dealers throughout the country and abroad for approximately $9 to $25 each.  In addition to paying $50,000 restitution, Mr. Newberry was sentenced Feb. 2, 2007, to six months in prison and six months of community confinement.

 

Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, was a member of the Church and admitted that from 1996-2003, he caught and sold undersized California leopard sharks taken from the San Francisco Bay with other church members, under the direction of John Newberry and Kevin Thompson.  In addition to paying $40,000 restitution, Mr. Ishikawa was sentenced Oct. 11, 2006, to three years probation.

 

Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland, acknowledged that from 2001-2004, he bought and sold undersized California leopard sharks through his business, Amazon Aquarium, Inc., an aquaria business located in Alameda, Calif.  The sharks were sold throughout the United States for $25-$50 each. In addition to paying $100,000 restitution, Mr. Ng was sentenced to eight months home confinement and two years probation.

 

Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa, Calif., admitted that from 1996 to 2003, he purchased the undersized California leopard sharks taken from the San Francisco Bay and sold them to other marine aquaria dealers throughout the U. S., and abroad. When shipping the sharks, Mr. Gass intentionally mislabeled them as “common sharks” in order to avoid detection by wildlife inspectors.  The sharks were sold for $50-$75 each.  In addition to paying $100,000 restitution, Mr. Gass was sentenced Feb. 5, 2007, to eight months in prison and three years of supervised release.

 

Sion Lim, 39, a citizen of Singapore living in San Francisco, regularly bought and sold undersized California leopard sharks through his business in Oakland, Bayside Marine Aquatics. The sharks were sold throughout the United States for approximately $25 per shark.  In addition to $20,000 restitution, Mr. Lim was sentenced on June 6, 2006, to one year probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

 

California leopard sharks are a species of shark within the Triakidae family, and are commonly found in ocean waters and estuaries along the coasts of Oregon, California, and Baja Mexico.  Major pupping areas are found within San Francisco and Monterey Bays as well as the southern California coast. The pupping season extends from March through July.  Pups are born live and are approximately 10 inches long.  The leopard shark is a slow growing species that does not reach sexual maturity until between 7 and 13 years of age.

 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the Cabrillo Aquarium in San Pedro, Calif., assisted federal wildlife agents and Illinois Conservation officers in the transport and care of 19 baby leopard sharks confiscated during the investigation. The sharks, which ranged in size from eight-and-a-half to 17 ½ inches, were shipped to California in July 2004 by Shedd Aquarium staff and received further care at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Nine were ultimately returned to the ocean in Monterey Bay in the summer of 2004.  Four remain on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium; seven died at either the Shedd Aquarium or Monterey Bay Aquarium because of their poor condition at the time they were confiscated.  Seventeen sharks confiscated in Georgia were cared for by Cabrillo Aquarium and were later returned to the ocean near Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in southern California.

 

One the Web:

Listen & read the National Public Radio story on the prosecution of the California poachers, featuring Special Agent Lisa Nichols: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7379593

 

More information about federal wildlife protection laws is available at http://www.fws.gov/le/

 

 

Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov