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Thursday, February 09, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor accused of illegally harvesting sharks

The pastor of a Bay Area church, four men in the aquarium industry and a commercial fisherman were indicted on federal charges of illegally catching and selling hundreds of juvenile leopard sharks, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The indictment charged Kevin Thompson, 48, pastor of the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, and the five others with selling 465 leopard sharks that were too small to harvest to pet distributors throughout the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

California leopard sharks, which can take 13 years to reach maturity, live as long as 30 years and are protected under a state law that prohibits the commercial catching of specimens under 36 inches long. The indictment, which alleges that federal wildlife agents seized sharks ranging from 8 1/2-inches to 17 1/2-inches in length, was based on a federal statute that incorporates the state law.

The charges resulted from an investigation that followed the 2003 conviction of a pet distributor who was caught with more than a dozen leopard sharks from California, said Luke Macaulay, a spokesman in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco.

The leopard shark’s gray body and black bars make it a “particularly attractive” species, said Christina Slager, a curator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which helped care for some of the confiscated fish. They are common along the California, Oregon and Baja California coasts and travel in schools, she said.

“In general sharks are struggling in the wild, and leopard sharks are no different,” Slager said. “If these animals aren’t allowed to reach an age or size where they can reproduce before they are removed from the environment, that has drastic implications for future generations.”

The other five defendants named in the indictment are: John Newberry, 34, of Hayward; Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa; Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland; and Sion Lim, 39, of San Francisco.

The six defendants were arrested on Tuesday, when the indictment was unsealed. Two pleaded not guilty. The Associated Press was unable to reach the other four. They face maximum penalties of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and possible requirement to pay restitution for each count, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“I can not believe that the federal government is charging these gentlemen with criminal activity,” said Jerome Matthews, a federal public defender representing Thompson.

Seven of the 19 baby leopard sharks confiscated during the two-year investigation died, the U.S. Attorney’s office said. Three are on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and nine were returned to the wild in the summer of 2004.