SAN FRANCISCO, California -- 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:
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:
“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.
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