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Two Years In Prison And $1.5 Million In Restitution Ordered In Washington Sea Cucumber Case
In late 2015, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Detective Julie Cook received a tip indicating Hoon Namkoong, the owner and operator of Orient Seafood Products in Fife, WA, was grossly under-reporting the amount of purchased sea cucumbers. He had purchased them from both State and Tribal divers. The tip also indicated that Namkoong wrote detailed notes on bank checks, including the name of the diver, pounds purchased, and cash supplementation. Used for Chinese medicinal purposes or sushi, sea cucumbers are bottom-feeding relatives of starfish and are primarily coveted by Chinese consumers. Once sea cucumbers are boiled, salted and dried/dehydrated, they will sell for upwards of $200 per pound.
State and Tribal divers split the state sea cucumber quota 50-50. Of interest was that the state-licensed divers, with a fleet of 25 boats, reached their quota within a month. Meanwhile, the more Two years in prison and $1.5 million in restitution than 40 Tribal divers with a larger fleet never reached their quota. While many tribes participate in the fishery, the Lummi Tribal divers harvest the vast majority. Such success is credited to their geographical proximity to rich harvest areas.
Working from the informant’s tip, Detectives Julie Cook and Wendy Willette conducted an inspection of Orient Seafood Product’s inventory and documentation. On the surface, everything seemed to be in order. The owner possessed both fish tickets and invoices. When asked in what manner he paid divers, Namkoong said he paid by check and volunteered to show the detectives his check register with duplicate check copies. Detective Cook observed copies of checks and noted that a name, cash paid, and a number (pounds purchased) were noted on the memo lines, thus substantiating the tip. Detective Cook asked Namkoong what the number was. He studied the check image and said, “I don’t know, it’s just some number!” When pressed, he admitted he sometimes paid cash in addition to the checks because fishermen preferred cash. The detectives also found Namkoong did not fill out tribal fish tickets himself, but rather the tribal members acted as their own buyers and completed the fish tickets.
Using the tip and the observed information, Detective Cook obtained a search warrant for financial documents for two seasons. Nearly all of the checks written to Lummi Tribal fishermen had “Product Lummi, paid (varied) cash” a name and alleged pounds written in the memo section. Checks paid to State fishermen had a fish ticket number in the memo line.