HONOLULU (AP) -- U.S. prosecutors in Hawaii are accusing the owners and officers of a Japanese fishing boat of helping Indonesian fishermen smuggle nearly 1,000 shark fins, worth about $58,000 on the black market.
It's against U.S. law to remove the fins of sharks at sea. Prosecutors say the fishermen harvested fins from some sharks that were still alive, then discarded their carcasses into the ocean. Fins are a pricey delicacy often used in soups
The boat's owner, Japanese business Hamada Suisan Co. Ltd., and JF Zengyoren, a Japanese fishing cooperative that the vessel belongs to, were charged with aiding and abetting the trafficking and smuggling of 962 shark fins, the U.S. attorney's office in Hawaii said. The boat's captain, fishing master and first engineer were also charged.
Last month, 10 Indonesian fishermen who were working on the longline tuna-fishing vessel were arrested in Hawaii and charged with trying to smuggle nearly 1,000 shark fins from the U.S. to Indonesia.
Four of the fishermen pleaded guilty Friday to a lesser, misdemeanor charge of knowingly attempting to export shark fins, court records show. A judge sentenced them to time they already served in jail. The other six are expected to plead guilty to the same charge and receive the same sentence later Friday.
They were headed home via Honolulu when airport security workers found shark fins in their luggage, according to court documents.
The fishermen harvested fins from hundreds of sharks "in some instances while the sharks were stunned but still alive, and discarded the finless carcasses into the ocean, all under the supervision of the captain, and at the direction of the fishing master and first engineer," prosecutors said in a news release.
A Hamada representative in Japan said Friday that the Indonesian crew members had shark fins without the captain's knowledge.
"Our tuna boats are for catching tuna. They are not to be used to smuggle shark fins," said a man who answered the phone at Hamada Suisan in Kagoshima, Japan, who declined to provide his name. "This is our company's policy."
JF Zengyoren, which is known as Japan Fisheries Cooperatives in English, said in a statement that it declined to comment because it hadn't received a copy of the complaint and was still finding out information.
Prosecutors say they could face fines of up to $5.5 million.
Some of the fins were from oceanic whitetip sharks, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, prosecutors said. Other fins were from silky sharks and bigeye thresher sharks, which are also protected.
"Shark finning is unlawful and takes a very real toll on our precious ocean ecosystem," Kenji Price, U.S. attorney for Hawaii, said in a statement.