The owner and officers of a Japanese-flagged fishing vessel were charged in federal court Tuesday with aiding and abetting the trafficking and smuggling of nearly 1,000 shark fins into and out of Hawaii last month.
During a year-long tuna-fishing expedition, the crew of a Japanese fishing boat —the M.V. Kyoshin Maru No. 20 — allegedly harvested fins from about 300 sharks, at least some species of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
One of those species, the oceanic white tip shark, has declined in population by about 80-95 percent across the Pacific Ocean since the mid-1990s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice press release, the crew cut the shark fins off, “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 ship’s officers.
The illegally-harvested fins were discovered in the luggage of 10 Indonesian nationals, who had been employed as fishermen on the boat. The Indonesian fishermen had been dropped off from the fishing boat at a port in Honolulu and were intending to catch a flight to Jakarta.
But Transportation Security Administration officials at Honolulu International Airport discovered a total of about 190 pounds of shark fins in bags checked by the fisherman “during a routine screening,” according to the D.O.J. statement. The fishermen have been charged and released while they await trial.
The criminal complaint filed Tuesday in Hawaii’s U.S. District Court brought charges against two Japanese companies — Hamada Suisan Co., Ltd, which owned and operated the boat and JF Zengyoren, a fishing cooperative to which the vessel belonged — as well as three of the Kyoshin Maru’s officers.
The the three men — captain Hiroyuki Kasagami, fishing master Toshiyuki Komatsu and first engineer Hiroshi Chiba — each face decades in prison and multi-million-dollar fines if convicted of the 11 charges brought against them Tuesday.
But whether they have to face those charges, remains an open question. All three men are Japanese nationals and were not arrested because they never entered the U.S. According to the D.O.J. statement, “They remain at large, presumably in Japan.”
The two corporate defendants each face a maximum fine of $500,000 per count, or $5.5 million.
Announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii Kenji M. Price said, “Shark finning is unlawful and takes a very real toll on our precious ocean ecosystem. My office is committed to combating this practice by prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law anyone found to be trafficking in shark fins.”