for National Geographic News
Leopard sharks in the San Francisco Bay Area will benefit from fines totaling nearly a million U.S. dollars—money resulting from the bust of a massive shark-smuggling ring that had been operating out of a local church.
Fines collected from six people convicted of the crimes will be used to create a habitat restoration fund for the sharks, federal prosecutors announced last week.
Over the span of more than a decade, the smugglers had pulled thousands of baby leopard sharks from the waters near San Francisco, California. The animals were sold alive to pet stores and private buyers throughout the United States and abroad.
"It's the largest investigation of shark poaching in U.S. history," said Roy Torres, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service's Office of Law Enforcement in Pacific Grove, California.
Last Monday Kevin Thompson—the 48-year-old pastor of the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro and the poaching ringleader—was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a fine of U.S. $100,000.
Five other people were convicted in the two-year investigation and were ordered to pay a combined total of $310,000.
And in a "nonprosecution agreement," the Unification Church of America, which is affiliated with Thompson's church, will pay $500,000 into the restoration fund.
In addition, the Packard, Moore and Hewlett foundations and the California Coastal Conservancy have agreed to donate to the fund, which should bolster the total to $1.5 million.
Hundreds of Shipments
Following the bust, 19 baby leopard sharks originating from the San Francisco Bay had been delivered to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the settlement was announced.
Four of the sharks were on display that day. Nine had been returned to the ocean, and the rest had died.
Lisa Nichols, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in San Diego, California, said that "we estimate anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 sharks have been collected over the last decade."
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