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Japanese Fishing Boat Owner Charged With Smuggling Shark Fins

December 11, 2018, 5:36 PM HST (Updated December 12, 2018, 7:29 AM)
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The owner and officers of a Japanese-flagged fishing vessel were charged in federal court on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, with aiding and abetting the trafficking and smuggling of 962 shark fins into and out of Hawai‘i on Nov. 7, 2018.

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According to court documents and information presented in court, the Japanese-flagged fishing vessel, M.V. Kyoshin Maru No. 20, engaged in longline tuna fishing in the southern Pacific Ocean for approximately one year. The officers were Japanese nationals, and the fishermen were Indonesian nationals. During the voyage, the fishermen harvested fins from approximately 300 sharks, in some instances while the sharks were stunned but still alive, and discarded the finless carcasses into the ocean, all under the supervision of the Captain, and at the direction of the Fishing Master and First Engineer. The Captain, Fishing Master, First Engineer, and many of the Indonesian fishermen all kept shark fins to take home with them.

On or about Nov. 6, 2018, the Kyoshin Maru traveled to a location near Honolulu, Hawai‘i, but more than 12 miles from shore, where it met a water taxi that had been arranged by a Vessel Agent from a local marine navigation corporation. The Indonesian fishermen disembarked the Kyoshin Maru and boarded the water taxi. The Kyoshin Maru then left for Japan with the Captain, Fishing Master, and First Engineer onboard, still in possession of shark fins. Meanwhile, the Indonesian fishermen traveled to Pier 36, where they legally entered the United States for the purpose of traveling in the custody of the Vessel Agent to Honolulu International Airport, in order to board previously-ticketed flights to Indonesia.

During routine screening, officers with the Transportation Security Administration discovered shark fins in checked luggage. Upon discovering the shark fins, TSA immediately notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which determined the checked luggage belonged to 10 of the Indonesian fishermen and included approximately 190 pounds of shark fins, which is worth as much as $57,850 on the black market.

Some of the shark fins were from oceanic whitetip sharks, which are listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international convention with over 180 parties, including the United States, Japan and Indonesia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the oceanic white tip shark has declined by approximately 80-95% across the Pacific Ocean since the mid-1990s. Other fins were from silky sharks and bigeye thresher sharks, which are also protected under the CITES Convention.

The 10 Indonesian fishermen were subsequently charged in a criminal complaint in United States v. Abdurahman, et. al., Mag No. 18-01253 (D. Haw. 2018), and are currently released on pretrial supervision. The criminal complaint filed today brings charges against five additional defendants: Hamada Suisan Co., Ltd, the Japanese business that owned and operated the vessel; JF Zengyoren, a Japanese fishing cooperative to which the vessel belonged; Hiroyuki Kasagami, the Captain of the vessel; Toshiyuki Komatsu, the Fishing Master of the vessel; and Hiroshi Chiba, the vessel’s First Engineer. The three Japanese nationals charged were not arrested because they never entered the United States. They remain at large, presumably in Japan.

The charges filed Tuesday include four counts of aiding and abetting violations of the Lacey Act, which each carry a maximum term of five years imprisonment; three counts of aiding and abetting the Smuggling of Goods Into the United States, which each carry a maximum term of 20 years imprisonment; and four counts of aiding and abetting the attempted Smuggling of Goods From the United States, which each carry a maximum term of 10 years imprisonment. The two corporate defendants each face a maximum fine of $500,000 per count, or $5.5 million. The three individual defendants each face a maximum fine of $250,000 per count, or $2.75 million. The charges in the criminal complaint are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. If the defendants are ultimately convicted of any offense, the sentencing will be determined by the court based on the advisory Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

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In announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawai‘i Kenji M. Price stated: “Shark finning is unlawful and takes a very real toll on our precious ocean ecosystem. My office is committed to combatting this practice by prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law anyone found to be trafficking in shark fins.”

United States laws prohibit, within U.S. jurisdiction: the removal of any fins of any shark at sea; the possession of such fins aboard a fishing vessel that are not attached to the corresponding carcass; and the transfer or landing of any such detached fin. Some of these laws implement U.S. obligations under international conventions. In addition, the laws of the State of Hawai‘i make it unlawful for any person to possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute shark fins. Due in part to the over-harvest of sharks, some species of shark—including three species found among the fins at issue in this case—are protected under the CITES Convention.

This case is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, with assistance from: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Law Enforcement; Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and the U.S. Coast Guard. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc A. Wallenstein, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Hawai‘i, and Senior Counsel for Wildlife Programs Elinor Colbourn, Environmental Crimes Section, U.S. Department of Justice. The prosecution team is coordinating with the U.S. Department of State on this matter.

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