A Seattle-area fish processor who hoped to cash in on China’s appetite for sea cucumber faces years in prison for his role in a $1.5m poaching scheme that rocked an already unstable fishery.
Federal prosecutors claim Hoon Namkoong led a years-long operation to poach and sell sea cucumbers as regulators were cutting the struggling Washington state fishery. Dozens of divers are also implicated in the poaching ring. Namkoong bought at least 250,000lb of stolen sea cucumber taken illegally from waters once rich with the echinoderms.
A leading US sea cucumber wholesaler, Namkoong made millions selling to buyers domestically and in China, where demand has spiked for sea cucumber. Namkoong, 62, faces up to two years in prison when he is sentenced on Friday.
Sea cucumber is a luxury food and traditional medicine in China. Demand for them has risen as Chinese incomes have grown, and the inflation-adjusted price paid to fishermen has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Sea cucumber stocks are under threat globally as fishermen dive to meet demand.
“My old boss says they make a really good clam dip,” joked Hank Carson, a Washington department of fish and wildlife research scientist who studies and manages the state sea cucumber fishery.
Cousins to the starfish and sea urchin, sea cucumbers are prized for the five bands of muscle cocooning their gooey centers. They are collected by divers linked to the surface by hose, then split and drained at sea. Processors like Namkoong buy the gutted cucumber, which is then dehydrated for sale.
For being such simple creatures … they’re really bizarre
Sea cucumber stocks in Washington fell dramatically during what Carson described as the fishery’s “gold rush” in the late 1980s and 1990s. In a pattern repeated in fisheries worldwide, Washington’s sea cucumber harvest – once America’s largest – ballooned to an unsustainable level before fears of a collapse prompted regulation to protect the poorly understood creature.
“They’re really mysterious animals,” Carson said. “For being such simple creatures … they’re really bizarre.”
Sea cucumber change their size and weight on demand, spewing or inhaling water. Their migration patterns are unknown and the age of an individual cucumber is impossible to discern. They sometimes eviscerate themselves, expelling their internal organs, though researchers aren’t sure why they do so.
Carson, who was Washington’s leading sea cucumber regulator while the poaching was occurring, said he is optimistic the fishery can rebound. Tribal fishermen, whose treaty rights afford them half the sea cucumber catch, and their non-tribal counterparts had been sacrificing to preserve the fishery. The poachers threatened that work.
Sea cucumber fishermen must report their catch to regulators, who decide when the 600,000lb annual quota has been harvested. Namkoong and more than 34 fishermen cheated the system by dramatically underreporting the catch, which Namkoong paid for in part with cash. Poached sea cucumbers were salted and dried at Orient Seafood Production, Namkoong’s suburban Seattle processing plant.
“That was a big setback,” said Carson, describing the poaching ring’s impact on the fishery’s management. “Lawful harvesters were making cuts, and unlawful harvesters were taking more.”
Namkoong pleaded guilty in April to conspiring to violate a federal law prohibiting poaching and wildlife trafficking. Prosecutors have asked that he be ordered to pay $1.5m in restitution and serve a two-year prison term.
“Namkoong caused this stressed resource to be over-harvested by over 250,000 pounds,” the assistant US attorney Matthew Diggs said in court papers. “He did so for the sole reason of enriching himself.”
In letters filed with the court, Namkoong’s friends described him as a generous, hardworking business owner well-regarded within his industry. Defense attorney Wayne Fricke argued that Namkoong was motivated in part by a desire to “help those divers who were attempting to make a living”.
While Namkoong hopes to be spared prison when he is sentenced on Friday, prosecutors have asked that he receive a two-year term. He is expected to be sentenced by the US district judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle.