Unification Church pastor illegally catches and sells 465 leopard sharks

The church founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon agreed to pay $500,000 (EUR385,922) to restore damaged habitat and avoid prosecution in the case of a pastor who poached baby sharks from San Francisco Bay, federal prosecutors said Monday.

Under the "non-prosecution agreement," the Unification Church's payment will go toward a $1.5 million (EUR1.16 million) fund to undo the environmental damage inflicted by the pastor's bizarre scheme, the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco said.

The manner of the habitat damage was unclear Monday, and authorities could not provide details.

Kevin Thompson, 48, who has resigned as 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 at least 465 undersized leopard sharks to pet stores in the United States, the Netherlands and Britain.

He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and ordered to pay $100,000 (EUR77,184) which will also go toward the wildlife restoration fund.

The church was not aware Thompson was engaged in illegal activity and does not condone such conduct, Rev. Michael Jenkins, president of the Unification Church of America, said in a statement.

Four men in the aquarium industry and a commercial fisherman also pleaded guilty to aiding the poaching and will pay a combined $310,000 (EUR239,271) into the fund.

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.

Moon did not know about Thompson's operation, said the Rev. Phillip Schanker, a spokesman for the church, reports AP.

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 8.5 inches (21.6 centimeters) to 17.5 inches (44.45 centimeters) long.

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