A dive master of a dive shop who was found guilty of killing and getting a protected spotted eagle ray was slapped yesterday with a maximum prison sentence of six months in prison.
Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho ordered Hu Jie Fang to serve the sentence day for day without the possibility of parole, probation, early release, or other similar programs.
After the hearing, the judge directed court marshals to take Fang to the Department of Corrections to start serving his sentence.
Fang, 27, a Chinese national, was given credit for three days of time served.
Camacho said the maximum prison time for killing a protected eagle ray is six months—a sentence similar to the maximum possible jail time for not having mud flaps on a truck.
“The court can only surmise that in its collective wisdom the Legislature has mandated that the penalty for killing an eagle ray is equivalent to not having mud flaps on vehicles,” he said.
Camacho said the Legislature finds that a scuba diving location commonly called “Eagle Ray City” is a popular dive destination in the waters off Saipan due to the regular gathering of spotted eagle rays. Camacho said this dive site is popular with tourists because it is rare to find naturally occurring gatherings on a regular basis
“The congregation of spotted eagle rays is easily photographed. Each photo taken home with the tourist is free advertising showing the great beauty and grand scale of aquatic life in the CNMI,” said Camacho, citing the findings and purpose of a bill that the Legislature passed in 2008.
He said the Legislature further finds that Eagle Ray City is popular with local residents and good for the economy in that it is accessible only by boat; divers (tourists and residents alike) need to hire local guides and secure the services of local boats and captains to reach this spot.
“This type of ecotourism is beneficial to the CNMI’s economy, fits within the advertising campaigns offered by the Marianas Visitors Authority, and should be nurtured, protected, and grown,” he said.
Camacho said the Legislature finds that evidence suggests the eagle rays have been recently hunted to such an extent as to threaten their population levels and as to instill an unnatural fear of divers, thereby threatening one aspect of the Commonwealth’s revenues.
The Legislature finds that spotted eagle rays specifically, and rays generally, are not traditional food fishes in the CNMI.
“Fishing specifically for such rays is not a tradition in the CNMI; the recent practice of doing so is detrimental to the welfare of the Commonwealth and should be prohibited…” Camacho said.
Camacho said that Fang used a spear gun and shot dead an eagle ray while diving at Eagle Ray City, also known as the Ice Cream Diving Spot.
Camacho said Fang is a master diver trained and instructed to respect marine animals.
“The group had already caught fish to be eaten. Defendant was heard saying not to take any photos because it was illegal to kill an eagle ray,” he said.
Camacho said that Fang’s life was not in danger and he was not in danger of starvation.
“Defendant knew it was illegal to kill an eagle ray, yes. Defendant used a spear gun and killed an eagle ray, yes,” Camacho said.
Assistant attorney general James B. McAllister recommended the maximum sentence of six months in prison. He said the government believes that a strong message must be sent to preserve ecotourism and to ensure that Fang and other divers will not poach spotted eagle rays or other protected species in the future.
“Since defendant knew his actions were illegal, simply enacting the law is not enough. Enforcement and punishment is now necessary,” the prosecutor added.
Assistant public defender Matthew Meyer, counsel for Fang, recommended leniency.
Meyer said that Fang is a first-time offender who took an eagle ray for the benefit of the tourists he guided on a dive trip.
Meyer said that Fang was not aware of the illegality of his act. He said Fang, who came from Jilin, China, five years ago, is employed as a dive instructor and has a common-law spouse and a 7-month-old daughter.
Meyer said Fang is now out of immigration status and will likely be deported back to China after he completes his sentence in this case.
Camacho had found Fang guilty of one count of ray protection at a bench trial on June 8. Witnesses testified that Fang shot a three-feet wide spotted eagle ray with a spear gun and took the ray on Jan. 15, 2014.