Kevin Thompson, 48, pastor of Bay Area Family Church, was indicted in January 2006 and pleaded guilty to charges related to catching thousands of baby leopard sharks out of San Francisco Bay and selling them to aquarium dealers throughout the country, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
"This case exemplifies this office's commitment to protecting the wildlife in the San Francisco Bay from illegal poaching," U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said in apress release. "We will use our collaborative relationships with law enforcement agencies both here and abroad to investigate those who are involved in smuggling local wildlife on the international black market."
The case is a result of a nearly two-year investigation conducted by agencies across borders, including the state Department of Fish and Game, the United Kingdom's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Fish Health Inspectorate and The Netherlands General Inspection Service.
Thompson came under suspicion when a pet trade distributor in Miami was caught with 18 baby leopard sharks from California. The distributor was convicted in 2003 and received an 18-month sentence.
Two people also were convicted on misdemeanor charges brought by the Chicago U.S. Attorney's Office. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles prosecuted others in connection with the case as well.
The case eventually led investigators back to the Bay Area.
In all, about 465 baby leopard sharks were sold, the Department of Justice said.
United Press International reported in December that Thompson, a Unification Church pastor for 14 years, paid fisherman about $3 a piece for the sharks and then sold them to dealers for $20 to $35.
Others charged in connection with the case include:
-John Newberry, 34, of Hayward, who worked at Pan Ocean Aquarium Inc. and was a member of Thompson's church.
-Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa, who is a marine aquaria dealer and operated Indorica Fish Imports.
-Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, who was a member of the church. He was sentenced on Oct. 11 to three years probation and $40,000 in fines.
-Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland, who owned Amazon Aquarium Inc. in Alameda.
-Sion Lim, 39, of San Francisco, who owned Bayside Aquatics in Oakland. He was sentenced on June 6 to one year probation, a $5,000 fine and $20,000 in restitution.
California leopard sharks are commonly found in ocean waters along the Oregon, California and Baja Mexico coasts. Pups are born live and grow to about 10 inches in length.
The sharks gained extra protection in 1994 when the state Department of Fish and Game placed a minimum size limit of 36 inches on the species.
Leopard sharks are particularly desirable for aquarium dealers. Since they grow pretty quickly, dealers usually want to keep them small for aquariums.
Both the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Monterey Bay Aquarium assisted federal wildlife investigators in transporting 19 baby leopard sharks confiscated during the case. Nine were ultimately returned to the wild in Monterey Bay, three remain on exhibit at the aquarium and seven died.
"We will investigate those who break the wildlife laws that protect the habitat and species of the San Francisco Bay," said Special Agent Roy Torres of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This successful prosecution is the result of of the support and collaboration of all the agencies that were involved in this investigation."