It’s not your typical poaching case, but the owner of a Tacoma-area seafood processing business was sentenced today to two years in prison for buying and selling 250,000 pounds of sea cucumbers illegally harvested in Puget Sound in recent years.
Hoon Namkoong of Orient Seafood Production of Fife, “one of the leading wholesale buyers of sea cucumbers” in Washington, must also pay the state and tribes $1.5 million in restitution.
That figure is equal to how much the 62-year-old’s company profited from selling the echinoderms to other businesses in the U.S. and Asia between August 2014 and November 2016.
“This defendant lined his pockets by purchasing and selling illegally harvested sea cucumbers equal to as much as 20 percent of the total allowed statewide harvest,” said U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes in a press release. “This illegal activity damages the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem by endangering the sustainability of the sea cucumber population. Illegal harvesting undermines quotas designed to protect the resource and keep the Sound healthy for our children and generations to come.”
We first reported on the case in June 2017 when the joint state-federal investigation came to light through a WDFW Director’s report.
State fish police had begun investigating Namkoong’s company in late 2015 and found that the poundage of sea cucumbers being purchased from tribal and nontribal divers was “often as much as 40 percent more than was documented on catch reports (fish receiving tickets).”
Falsifying fish tickets and illegally selling natural resources is a violation of the Lacey Act.
A federal sentencing memorandum terms Namkoong “the hub and common player among at least four non-tribal fishers and more than thirty Lummi tribal fishers who conspired to cheat the system,” and says he “profited far more richly from the scheme than any of his co-conspirators.”
According to court documents, the value of the sea cucumbers has risen from $2 a pound 25 years ago to $5 a pound today with the rise of demand. Namkoong was buying product for $4.50 a pound with cash or checks.
The activities came at a time that concerned fishery managers were lowering quotas for legal harvesters due to sea cucumber declines, but the illegal picking was actually increasing.
“It is no wonder, then, that we have failed to see signs of recovery as a result of the work of sea cucumber managers and the sacrifices of the lawfully compliant harvesters. Because we do not see recovery signs, we are forced to continue to reduce harvest. Therefore, the illegal activity continues to threaten the sustainability of the fishery and results in direct economic damage to lawful harvesters and seafood buyers,” wrote WDFW’s Henry Carson, who was the state manager when the poaching was taking place, in sentencing documents.
The case has led to friction between fishery overseers.
“The illegal harvest scheme has damaged the complex relationship between state and tribal managers, policy makers, and enforcement,” Carson wrote. “The disagreements have not only been between tribes and the State, but also among tribes.”
According to a federal sentencing document, nontribal divers involved in the scheme “received suspended or converted prison sentences for felony convictions (or in one case a gross misdemeanor),” while tribal divers “were charged with civil infractions.”
“Despite not regularly fishing for sea cucumbers … the alleged illegal harvest has caused harm to our tribes and may continue to do so for years to come,” wrote Randy Harder of the Point No Point Treaty Council in sentencing documents, adding, “Damage done to the resource could stretch out for years.”