SAN FRANCISCO – LAWFUEL – California Law News – United States Attorney Kevin V. Ryan announced that $1.5 million has been designated for rehabilitating and restoring marine wildlife habitat in the San Francisco Bay to further protect the California leopard shark. $910,000 of the funds have been assembled from payments by a San Leandro church, and restitution by the church’s pastor and five other criminal defendants who were involved with an operation that poached thousands of California leopard sharks from the San Francisco Bay for more than ten years. The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC), which includes the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, has agreed to pay $500,000 for the wildlife restoration partnership. In addition, $300,000 from the California Coastal Conservancy and $300,000 through the combined contributions of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation were today designated for the same purpose.
The HSA-UWC, founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, will contribute the $500,000 as part of a non-prosecution agreement with the United States Attorney’s Office. Six individuals have now been convicted and sentenced for knowingly catching thousands of undersized (under 36 inches in length) leopard sharks out of the San Francisco Bay and selling them to aquarium dealers in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. These defendants will pay the following amounts for wildlife restoration:
• Kevin Thompson, the pastor of the Bay Area Family Church, will pay $100,000 in restitution.
• Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa, California, will pay $100,000 in restitution.
• Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland, California, will pay $100,000 in restitution.
• John Newberry, 34, of Hayward, California, will pay $50,000 in restitution.
• Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, California, will pay $40,000 in restitution.
• Sion Lim, 39, of San Francisco, California, will pay $20,000 in restitution.
U.S. Attorney Kevin V. Ryan stated, “As a result of this local and international investigation, $1.5 million has been designated, by restitution and donation, to the restoration of wildlife habitat in the San Francisco Bay. The prosecution of these six individuals, along with generous contributions from the California Coastal Conservancy, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, has enabled federal and state authorities to devise means to further protect the California leopard shark. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to prosecuting individuals that poach the wildlife protected by state and federal laws. I thank our partners in this investigation—NOAA Fisheries Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish & Game, the United Kingdom’s Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs, and the Netherlands General Inspection Service.”
These convictions are the result of an investigation conducted by NOAA Fisheries Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in conjunction with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 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).
“For over two years, Special Agent Roy Torres coordinated a world-wide investigation working closely with other federal, state and international law enforcement partners to track down and end this elaborate leopard shark poaching network. This case demonstrates NOAA Fisheries Service’s Office of Law Enforcement commitment to protect our nation’s marine resources,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Don Masters, Southwest Division, NOAA Fisheries Service Office of Law Enforcement.
The defendants’ admitted to the following in their plea agreements:
1. Kevin Thompson is the pastor of the Bay Area Family Church, Holy Spirit Association for Unification of World Christianity in San Leandro, California. From 1992-2003, he led a scheme where by members of his church illegally harvested undersized California leopard sharks from the San Francisco Bay and sold them throughout the United States and abroad. In addition to paying restitution, Mr. Thompson was sentenced on January 22, 2007, to one year and one day in prison and is scheduled to begin serving his sentence on March 19, 2007.
2. John Newberry 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, California, owned by a business associated with the church. They then shipped the sharks out of Oakland and San Francisco Airports for sale to dealers throughout the country and abroad. The sharks were sold wholesale to distributors for approximately $9 to $25 per shark. In addition to paying restitution, Mr. Newberry was sentenced to 6 months in prison and 6 months of community confinement on February 2, 2007. He is scheduled to begin serving his sentence on April 9, 2007.
3. Hiroshi Ishikawa 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 restitution, Mr. Ishikawa was sentenced on October 11, 2006, to three years probation.
4. Vincent Ng 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, California. The sharks were sold throughout the United States for $25-$50 per shark. In addition to paying restitution, Mr. Ng was sentenced to eight months of home confinement, two years probation, and is scheduled to begin serving his sentence on April 1, 2007.
5. Ira Gass 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 United States and abroad. When shipping the sharks, Mr. Gass would intentionally mislabel them as “common sharks” in order to avoid detection by wildlife inspectors. The sharks were sold throughout the United States and abroad for $50-$75 per shark. In addition to paying restitution, Mr. Gass was sentenced on February 5, 2007, to 8 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and is scheduled to begin serving his sentence on April 17, 2007.
6. Sion Lim, a citizen of Singapore, regularly purchased and sold undersized California leopard sharks through his fish and corals wholesale distribution business in Oakland, California, Bayside Marine Aquatics. The sharks were sold throughout the United States for approximately $25 per shark. In addition to paying restitution, Mr. Lim was sentenced on June 6, 2006, to one year probation, and a $5,000 fine.
“The prosecution of this case casts a bright light on the dark world of illegal worldwide trading in protected wildlife. These leopard sharks were smuggled from California to profit-motivated dealers throughout the United States, and in Europe. But the work of our special agents here, and across the country illustrates that no matter where you are located, if you are illegally buying or selling protected wildlife you will be caught, and you will pay a price for breaking wildlife law,” said Paul Chang, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, Pacific Region.
California leopard sharks are a species of shark within the Triakidae family and are commonly found in ocean waters along the Oregon, California, and Baja Mexico coasts. Leopard sharks are commonly found in bays and estuaries from the California/Oregon border south to Baja, Mexico. Major pupping areas where young California leopard sharks are born are found within San Francisco and Monterey Bays as well as the southern California coast. The pupping season extends from March through July with a peak between April and May. Pups are born live and are approximately 10 inches in length.
In January 1994, California leopard sharks were afforded extra protection under California State law when the California Department of Fish & Game Code placed a minimum size limit of 36 inches for any commercial take of the species within California jurisdiction. This size limit was implemented because the California leopard shark is a slow growing species that does not reach sexual maturity until between 7 to 13 years of age. The species may live as long as 30 years. Because of these factors and others, including increased commercial and sport fishing, California State wildlife authorities have established these management measures to ensure the species’ ability to maintain healthy stocks in the wild.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, and the Cabrillo Aquarium in San Pedro, Calif., collaborated with and assisted federal wildlife agents and Illinois Conservation officers in the transport and care of 19 baby leopard sharks confiscated during the course of the investigation. The baby 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 wild in Monterey Bay in the summer of 2004. Four remain on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium; seven died either at the Shedd Aquarium or Monterey Bay Aquarium because of their poor condition at the time they were confiscated.
The investigation began in Miami, when a pet trade distributor was caught with 18 undersized leopard sharks from California and was convicted in 2003 of one count in violation of the Lacey Act and received an 18 month sentence. The Chicago U.S. Attorney’s Office entered into pretrial diversion with two individuals associated with the case who agreed to pay $5,000 each and perform community service. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles has also prosecuted individuals in connection with this case. The investigation led back to the Bay Area where the principal suppliers were located.
Maureen Bessette and Stacey Geis are the Assistant U.S. Attorneys prosecuting the case with the assistance of Cynthia Daniel and Ana Guerra.
A copy of this press release may be found on the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s website at www.usdoj.gov/usao/can.
Electronic court filings and further procedural and docket information are available at https://ecf.cand.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/login.pl.
Judges’ calendars with schedules for upcoming court hearings can be viewed on the court’s website at www.cand.uscourts.gov.
All press inquiries to the U.S. Attorney’s Office should be directed to Luke Macaulay at (415) 436-6757 or by email at [email protected]