Shark-Smuggling Bust Nets $1 Million for Habitat Protection

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Leopard sharks can be found along the coasts of Oregon, California, and Mexico's Baja California peninsula.

The sharks have an average life span of 25 to 30 years but do not start reproducing until they are 7 to 13 years old. Females give birth to anywhere from 20 to 36 live pups at a time.

The sharks are at risk in California because juveniles are often inadvertently caught in fishers' nets. A 1994 California Fish and Game law therefore prohibits commercial capture of leopard shark pups smaller than 36 inches (91 centimeters) long.

Leopard sharks are about 10 inches (25 centimeters) long when they are born, and the smugglers had been taking the pups directly from pregnant females.

"It's tragic that they were harvesting adult female sharks as the sharks were ready to give birth," said John Ugoretz, environmental program manager for the California Department of Fish and Game, who is based in Monterey.

"They're not just illegally taking one animal, but potentially impacting future generations by pulling all of those babies out of the environment and not giving them a chance to survive," he said.

"It's really a heinous act to harvest the females and literally cut them open and take the babies and sell them."

Selling the live pups also put the smugglers in violation of the federal Lacey Act, which bans the trade of animals obtained illegally.

In 2003 a NOAA smuggling expert in Miami saw a baby leopard shark for sale on the Internet and began asking questions (related news: "Protected Species, Animal Products for Sale Online" [August 26, 2005]).

When the trail led to the Bay Area—and Thompson's church—Torres, the Pacific Grove-based NOAA agent, got involved.

Torres discovered that the church had made two shipments of about 200 sharks worth up to $40,000 from the American Airlines cargo office in San Francisco.

When he walked across the street to the Northwest Airlines office, Torres realized the magnitude of the poaching operation.

"From there these guys had made hundreds of shipments," Torres said. "That's when bells started going off. I said, 'Uh-oh, this is huge.'"

"King of the Ocean"

Baby leopard sharks, which are tan with large dark spots, are highly sought after by fish collectors.

"Leopard sharks are beautiful, striking animals, especially when they're young, because the colors are so crisp on them," said Manny Ezcurra, an associate curator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Despite their relatively long life span in the wild, the sharks—which can reach 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2 meters) in length as adults—often die young in home aquariums or are released when they get too big, so the market remains strong.

In 2003 Thompson's group was selling the sharks for $35 to $45 a piece to middlemen, who in turn sold them to pet shops and individuals for $75 to $95.

In the store a baby leopard shark could fetch as much as $240.

Thompson reportedly devoted one of his sermons to the subject of pet sharks, saying his church had been operating "this little shark business" for years. He told his parishioners, "Don't tell anyone about it."

The pastor "appears to have singled out young, single men in the church and given them room and board and told them it was their duty to catch the sharks," NOAA's Torres said.

When some of the poachers asked the preacher if they were doing the right thing, Thompson allegedly responded that the poaching was God's will.

Thompson's Bay Area Family Church is affiliated with the Unification Church, whose members are often referred to as Moonies because of Sun Myung Moon, the church's outspoken leader.

The ocean is a spiritual place in the church's teachings, and Moon has proclaimed himself "King of the Ocean."

The Unification Church of America has denied any knowledge of Thompson's operation.

Meanwhile Nichols, the FWS agent, said the region's supply of leopard sharks appears to have dried up now that the smuggling ring has been broken.

"I've made some inquiries undercover," she said, "and everyone says they can't get these sharks anymore."

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