LDWF Enforcement Agents Spot Check Reveals Large Scale Shark Finning Operation

story by ADAM EINCK, LDWF Public Information

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement Agents are taught to expect the unexpected when performing creel checks, vehicle stops, boating safety inspections, license checks and wild game inspections.

Agents have discovered large scale drug operations and people under assumed identities, operating stolen vessels or vehicles, concealing a catch or harvest and being over the limit of wild game or fish just to name a few during these checks.

It’s the latter two, and on a large scale, that then-Sgt. Adam Young and then-Senior Agent Villere Reggio uncovered April 8, 2012, during a vessel stop in Tiger Pass in Plaquemines Parish.

Young, now a LDWF Lieutenant, and Reggio, now a Sergeant with the LDWF enforcement division, received an anonymous complaint about a vessel that may have been involved in possible illegal shark finning. Shark finning is an illegal practice of removing the shark’s fins, which are the most profitable part of the shark, and then discarding the rest of the shark’s body overboard where they sink to the bottom of the water and die as they can no longer swim.

“We had received a detailed complaint about this vessel that appeared to be involved in the practice of shark finning so we began tracking it,” said Young. “We first observed the vessel in port at Sharkos seafood dock on April 5 and then leaving the dock on April 6. We didn’t see the vessel again until late in the evening on April 8.”

Agents stopped the suspected vessel, Lady Lyanna, and found the captain, Rick Hai Van Nguyen, 43, of Buras, and Hung A. Tiet, 45, of Dallas, Texas, in possession of 11 sharks that were in plain sight on the vessel.

“We approached and boarded the vessel before it could make port at Sharkos dock,” said Young. “The captain willingly agreed for us to come aboard and inspect the vessel and he had all the necessary documents.”

Nguyen told Young that they were fishing for sharks in federal waters and produced his federal shark fishing permit. He also told Young that they only had 11 sharks on board. The daily commercial limit for sharks in Louisiana is 33 per vessel.

“We saw the 11 sharks on the deck and he possessed all the required documents. Everything appeared to be legal at this point in the stop,” said Young. “But since this specific vessel had a shark finning complaint we decided to escort the vessel to the United States Coast Guard dock at Venice Station for a more thorough inspection.”

At the dock LDWF agents inspected every ice hole and compartment they could find without finding anymore sharks. When Reggio was inspecting the ice hole with three compartments in the back of the ship he hit all three compartments with a rake. The ice hole compartments on the left and right sounded solid while the center compartment sounded hollow.

Young and Reggio then removed a rug that was on the floor near the back wall of the cabin on the ship that revealed a cut in the vinyl tile flooring. The agents then inserted a knife into this cut and were able to lift up the floor.

“When the floor was lifted it revealed an insulated 5- by 3-foot fiberglass top,” said Young. “Once we took that fiberglass top off we found several yellow mesh sacks containing shark fins on ice.”

The agents removed 15 yellow mesh sacks, one red mesh sack and one small plastic bag all containing shark fins from the hidden hole in the floor.

“At that time we placed Nguyen and Tiet under arrest,” said Young.

Young and Reggio arrested Nguyen and Tiet on federal charges of shark finning and being over the limit of commercial sharks, and a state charge of intentional concealment of illegal fish and booked them into the Plaquemines Parish prison. The agents also seized the 39-foot vessel on a department seizure order.

The agents then had to collect all the mesh bags with the shark fins and then count how many shark fins the men possessed. The next day, on April 9, Young and Reggio counted the shark fins getting a total of 2,073 shark fins, which accounts for 518 sharks.

When adding the 11 whole sharks found on board the vessel, it put the men at a total of 529 sharks and 496 sharks over the legal limit of 33. The agents also estimated that the total weight of the shark fins to be 500 pounds.

“The 518 carcasses of the sharks that were finned were presumed lost at sea,” said Young. “The law states that sharks must have their fins attached to their body until they make landfall.”

Shark fins are valuable as they are used in Asian cultures for medicinal purposes and in expensive soups that can cost more than $100 a bowl.

“Getting shark fins from legally landed whole sharks that are sold at the dock is perfectly legal,” said Young. “However, I would speculate and say the vast majority of fins are sold in underground markets illegally from operations such as what these men were into. The value of the fin makes it very enticing for illegal activities to occur.”

Nguyen and Tiet pleaded guilty in federal court in February of 2016 to violations of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for illegal finning and over the limit of sharks.

They were ordered to pay a fine to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) totaling $45,000. The men were also placed on two years of probation during which they agreed to not transfer any of their federal shark directed permits. They also further agreed that if they are determined to be in violation of any provision of the Magnusson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act during this two-year period, they will surrender all of their federal shark directed permits for a period of nine months. Finally, the men had their Louisiana state shark permits and set line licenses revoked for life.

“Sgt. Reggio and I were very pleased with the sentencing in this case and happy the federal government stepped in to get heftier fines,’’ Young said. “If this case would have remained with only state charges then the max fines would have been closer to $30,000 and not the $45,000 that was rendered in federal court. These guys deserved every penny of their fine for their heinous actions.”