A Washington seafood company owner has been fined $1.5 million (£1.2 million) and sentenced to two years in prison for over-harvesting sea cucumbers.
The arrest was one of the largest busts in the illegal sea cucumber trade in the United States this year.
Hoon Namkoong, 62, had previously pleaded guilty to under-reporting the number of sea cucumbers he had bought from tribal and non-tribal fisheries in Washington’s Puget Sound.
He was accused of under-reporting harvests by nearly 113,400 kilograms between 2014 and 2016, which were then sold to buyers in Asia and the US through his company Orient Seafood Production.
Although harvesting sea cucumbers is legal in the US, there are restrictions on the size of harvests.
Sea cucumbers, which are related to sea urchins and starfish, play an important role in keeping coral reef ecosystems healthy by filtering waste from the sea floor and countering the effects of ocean acidification through their digestive system.
However, the marine animal is also a delicacy in parts of Asia. In particular, rising demand for sea cucumbers in China and south-east Asian countries has led to over-fishing with illegal trade becoming increasingly common and lucrative.
Namkoong’s haul amounted to nearly 20 per cent of the total permitted harvest of sea cucumbers state-wide and damaged the Puget Sound ecosystem, according to US Attorney Annette Hayes.
“This illegal activity damages the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem by endangering the sustainability of the sea cucumber population,” Ms Hayes said. “Illegal harvesting undermines quotas designed to protect the resource and keep the Sound healthy for our children and generations to come.”
Sea cucumber harvests, which are regulated by both Washington state and tribal authorities, are tracked by fish tickets signed by both the fisher and the purchaser.
In his plea, Namkoong admitted he falsified fish tickets over three years and frequently paid fishers in cash so there would be no financial record of the total amount of sea cucumbers taken.
His actions violated the Lacey Act, a US law which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken.
In addition to the fine and prison sentence, Namkoong was also sentenced to three years of post-prison supervision on Friday.
Last year, federal officials filed charges against a father-son partnership for allegedly smuggling more than $17 million (£13.1 million) worth of sea cucumbers to the United States and exporting them to Asia.
The pair was accused of buying the illegally harvested animals from poachers in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and shipping them overseas.