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Moon's church to pay in shark poaching

It will give $500,000 to a wildlife fund to help restore damaged habitat after pastor is convicted of illegally catching and selling fish to pet stores.

February 13, 2007|From the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The church founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon will pay $500,000 to restore damaged habitat -- and avoid prosecution -- in the case of a pastor who poached hundreds of baby sharks from San Francisco Bay, federal prosecutors said Monday.

The Unification Church's payment -- part of a "non-prosecution agreement" with the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco -- will go toward a $1.5-million fund to undo the environmental damage inflicted by the pastor's bizarre scheme.

Kevin Thompson, 48, pastor of the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, pleaded guilty in January to enlisting church members in an 11-year operation to illegally catch and sell the undersized leopard sharks to pet stores.

He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, and ordered to pay $100,000, which also will go toward the wildlife restoration fund.

Four men in the aquarium industry and a commercial fisherman also pleaded guilty to aiding the poaching effort, and will pay a combined $310,000 into the fund. An additional $600,000 will be provided by the state and private foundations.

At least 465 leopard sharks too small to catch legally -- and allegedly thousands more -- were sold to pet distributors throughout the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

"Part of what we do in the church is use boats for training with young people," Thompson told authorities in an interview that appears in court documents. "That's part of our faith. That's what Rev. Moon taught us."

The ocean plays an important role in Moon's teaching. He founded his Ocean Church in the 1980s based on the belief that fishing is a holy activity that reflects God's will for humans to have dominion over the sea.

In a recording of a 2003 sermon, Thompson unabashedly told his congregation just how far he believed that dominion extended, boasting that members of what he called the "Ocean Church" had spent more than a decade catching and selling baby leopard sharks to pet stores.

"We want the smaller the better," he said.

Thompson bragged that a fellow church member had discovered a leopard shark pupping ground in mudflats along the bay, and had returned with more than 100 baby sharks. He said pet stores would pay $20 per shark and sell them for home aquariums for $75 each.

Moon himself became excited when he learned about the shark-catching operation, Thompson claimed in the sermon.

"He told me, you know you need 20 boats out there fishing," Thompson said. "He had this big plan drawn out."

Moon "did not have any kind of personal knowledge or involvement with the details or the particulars" of Thompson's operation, said the Rev. Phillip Schanker, a spokesman for the church.

He said any conversation that may have taken place would have been in the context of Thompson having a casual conversation with his 87-year-old spiritual leader about fishing, an activity they both enjoyed.

In a statement, the Rev. Michael Jenkins, president of the Unification Church of America, said the church was not aware that Thompson was engaged in illegal activity.

"The church did not direct and does not condone such conduct," Jenkins said.

The Unification Church was contributing money to the restoration fund "to make something positive of this unfortunate circumstance," he said.

Thompson has resigned from his position as church pastor, Jenkins said.

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.

Prosecutors said federal wildlife agents seized sharks ranging from 8 1/2 inches to 17 1/2 inches in length.

The charges resulted from an investigation that followed the 2003 conviction of a pet distributor in Miami who was caught with more than a dozen leopard sharks from California, according to federal prosecutors.

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.

The other five defendants who pleaded guilty are Ira Gass, 53, of Azusa; Hiroshi Ishikawa, 36, of San Leandro, Calif.; Sion Lim, 39, of San Francisco; John Newberry, 34, of Hayward, Calif.; and Vincent Ng, 43, of Oakland.

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