OWNER OF KOREATOWN MARKET SENTENCED FOR ILLEGALLY SMUGGLING SNAKEHEAD FISH INTO UNITED STATES
A Sherman Oaks man was sentenced today for illegally importing northern snakehead fish from South Korea. Sung Chul “Daniel” Rhee, 46, was placed on probation for three years for his guilty plea to three misdemeanor charges.
On behalf of his company, Assi Super, Inc., Rhee today paid a criminal fine of $200,000. As part of this case, Rhee has agreed to pay for advertisements that will run in two Korean-language newspapers and will warn the community about the dangers posed by snakeheads.
Rhee pleaded guilty on October 12 to three counts of importing an injurious species, namely the northern snakehead fish, which is notorious because it can breathe air, walk on land and as an adult voraciously feed on native fish and animals. Rhee specifically admitted that he imported the live fish in three shipments in June 2003. The fish were hidden in larger shipments of fresh food sent by South Korea’s Hae Won Seafood via Korean Air, and the snakeheads were labeled “sea bass” or “bass, fresh water fish.”
Snakehead fish, which are native to parts of Asia and Africa, are illegal in the United States due to the danger of them being released into the wild and decimating native populations of various species. Snakeheads will compete with native species for food, and as adults they feed on other fish, crustaceans, frogs, and sometime birds and mammals. Compounding this danger is the fact that Snakeheads can breathe air and can move over land from one body of water to another.
Assi Super, Inc. pleaded guilty to seven felony counts – three counts of smuggling and four counts of illegally transporting and selling the smuggled fish. The corporation was also sentenced today to three years of probation.
Half of the criminal fine will go to environmental causes. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive $50,000, and the California Department of Fish and Game will receive $50,000.
The case against Rhee is the result of an investigation by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the California Department of Fish and Game.
Rhee was arrested May 14 of last year after wildlife officials saw live snakeheads being sold at his Assi Super market on West 8th Street.
Authorities began surveillance of Rhee’s store after receiving an anonymous tip from a television news reporter in April 2003 that the store was selling live snakeheads. Agents purchased the fish at Assi Super, finding the store had nine fish in stock and advertised only in Korean on signs. In June 2003, agents tracked three shipments of fish for Assi coming through customs at Los Angeles International Airport and discovered the live fish – never more than seven – amid eels, other seafood and mushrooms. The snakeheads were in containers that stated they were “sea bass” or “bass, freshwater fish.”
Rhee reportedly sold the fish at Assi Super market only on weekends. Estimates are that he imported at least 1,500 pounds of live snakeheads during 2002 and the first half of 2003, grossing about $23,000.
Three years ago, Rhee’s nephew, who owns a Korean market in Garden Grove, was caught selling live snakeheads. He told wildlife officials the fish had come from Rhee’s store. The nephew was issued a citation by a state Fish and Game warden for unlawful possession of live snakeheads.
Snakeheads made national headlines two years ago when they were found breeding in a private pond in Maryland. State officials poisoned the pond and recovered 1,000 juvenile and six adult snakeheads. Authorities are now looking closely at an Assi seafood market owned by Rhee’s brother in Baltimore, which may been the source of the ecosystem-destroying fish there.