LA CRESCENTA â€” A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a 57-year-old La Crescenta man for allegedly selling hundreds of juvenile leopard sharks on the black market, officials said.
Eduardo Fernandez Carvajal was indicted on 18 counts of wildlife trafficking and one count of conspiracy for collecting and helping distribute about 830 of the young sharks out of the state for sale to fish retailers and private collectors.
State law prohibits the sale or collection of leopard sharks, unless they are more than 3 feet long. Adult leopard sharks give birth to live young, which typically measure between 8 inches and 1 foot long, and take seven to 10 years to reach maturity.
The indictment alleges that Carvajal began collecting the juvenile sharks off the coast of Southern California in 2003 before selling them to traffickers for between $25 and $75 per shark.
Distributors would then transport the sharks by truck to Las Vegas and Phoenix, where they were then shipped and sold to purchasers throughout the country for $140 to $450 each, according to the indictment.
Wildlife officials said the sharks are popular among collectors for their slow growth and color patterns. California banned the collection and sale of juvenile sharks in 1994 in response to a rapidly declining population brought on by slow growth and rampant farming for aquarium collections.
â€œIt has been quite a problem in the past,â€ said Erin Dean, resident agent in charge of the Los Angeles Field Office Fish and Wildlife Service, which took part in the joint investigation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state Department of Fish and Game.
Last year, a San Francisco church was embroiled in an 11-year leopard-shark-poaching operation that collected at least 465 juvenile sharks, which were then sold to collectors in the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The reverend of that church agreed to pay $500,000 toward a $1.5-million fund to rehabilitate damaged habitat.
The church's pastor paid $100,000 and was sentenced to one year in prison in the same scheme.
Four men involved in the aquarium industry, together with a commercial fisherman, also pleaded guilty to aiding the church officials.
Authorities, citing upcoming court proceedings, declined to comment on how extensive of an operation Carvajal was alleged to be involved in.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the shipper who transported the undersized sharks from Los Angeles and three customers each paid a $5,000 fine to the federal government for their involvement in the scheme.
Carvajal is scheduled to be arraigned on all 19 counts of the indictment in federal court Aug. 18 in Los Angeles, Assistant U.S. Atty. Dorothy Kim said.
The La Crescenta resident faces a maximum five years in prison on each count, she added.