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Federal officials have broken up a major wildlife smuggling ring in California that pulled thousands of baby leopard sharks out of the San Francisco Bay. The live sharks were then sold to pet stores and private buyers all over the world. The leader of this smuggling ring was also the pastor at a church in the Bay Area. Federal investigators say he often sent members of his own congregation out to catch the sharks.

NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN: A few years ago, a preacher named Kevin Thompson devoted his weekly sermon at the so-called Ocean Church in San Leandro, California, to an unusual topic: pet sharks.

Mr. KEVIN THOMPSON (Pastor, Ocean Church): For the past 13 years, Ocean Church has had this little shark business. We catch these baby sharks, about this big, and we sell them to pet stores live.

NIELSEN: Pastor Thompson's products were baby leopard sharks fresh from San Francisco Bay. Customers paid up to $40 for each of the one to two-foot sharks. Fish collectors around the world loved them for their big dark spots and the elegant way they move through the water. There was just one problem with this business: it's illegal. Earlier this year, Thompson and five other men plead guilty to wildlife smuggling and Thompson was sentenced to a year in jail. The recording of his sermon was obtained by the East Bay Express, a free weekly based in Oakland.

Federal officials say Thompson ran a poaching gang that may have removed 10,000 baby leopard sharks from San Francisco Bay. Lisa Nichols, a smuggling expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, talked about how it was done yesterday at a press conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Nichols says the poachers caught hundreds of sharks a day during the breeding season. And for years, they got away with it.

Ms. LISA NICHOLS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): The majority of them would just fish, hook them, bring them in. If you're out there in dark and nobody checks you, you take it back to your truck, you're gone. If somebody shows up, they get dumped in the water and the evidence is gone.

NIELSEN: The ring began to fall apart in 2003, when a smuggling expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saw a baby leopard shark for sale on a Web site and started asking questions. The investigation led him to the Ocean Church and Pastor Thompson and his partners, some of whom also happened to be his parishioners.

Yesterday, Nichols and other officials closed the book on this investigation by unveiling a $1.5 million plan to restore some of the marshes where the leopard sharks give birth. More than $400,000 of these dollars will come from Thompson and his partners as part of their sentence. Five hundred thousand dollars more will be donated by the Unification Church of America, to which the Ocean Church belongs. The rest of the money will come from foundations and conservation groups.

Lisa Nichols says this prosecution has helped drive other leopard shark poachers out of business.

Ms. NICHOLS: Once we started openly prosecuting people in this case after the investigation was at a certain level, the word spread pretty quickly in the industry. And working undercover, I tried to make attempts to buy in the last year and, you know, it's pretty much shut down.

NIELSEN: Towards the end, according to investigators, some of these poachers ask their preacher whether they were doing the right thing. Thompson's response, allegedly, was that the poaching was God's will. After the press conference, Mike Murray, staff veterinarian at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said there were a lot of good reasons why the trade in baby leopard sharks should never be allowed to recover. One was that these baby sharks don't stay that way for long.

Dr. MIKE MURRAY (Staff Veterinarian, Monterey Bay Aquarium): They become very large. You know, six, seven, eight feet in length. That's a big fish.

NIELSEN: Too big, he says, for the fish tank in your living room.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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