A young great white shark washed up dead on a beach along California’s Central Coast in June, leaving locals, scientists and law enforcement wondering what could have killed the animal.
Wildlife officials have now revealed the culprit: Vinh Pham, a 41-year-old fisherman from San Jose, has been convicted in Santa Cruz County court for unlawfully killing the juvenile shark, according to a California Department of Fish and Wildlife news release Thursday.
Pham pleaded guilty to a handful of charges on Jan. 14, including wanton waste of a white shark, possessing a loaded rifle in his vehicle and other charges related to his fishing practices, the fish and wildlife department said. He was sentenced to two years probation and fined $5,000. The .22-caliber firearm he used to shoot the animal will be destroyed by court order.
“Hopefully people get the message that we’re prosecuting criminals who violate laws that are meant to protect the state’s wildlife resources,” said Capt. Todd Tognazzini of the department’s law enforcement division, according to Bay Area News Group.
Wildlife officers started investigating the shark’s death June 17, 2018, after the nine-foot, 500-pound animal washed ashore on Beer Can Beach in Aptos, along the north end of Monterey Bay.
The shark’s body was covered with scars and wounds from sea lions the shark had preyed on — but Giancarlo Thomae, a marine biologist, said in a June interview with McClatchy that those external injuries weren’t what killed it.
“This was a big, healthy shark,” Thomae said, speculating that it could have been a brain infection. “Those were like cat scratches.”
The necropsy found something more menacing than a carnobacterium infection: The shark had multiple bullet wounds that came from a .22-caliber firearm, fish and wildlife officials said. X-rays show where two of the bullets ended up lodged in the animal.
Wildlife officers said a tip soon came in reporting that “a member of a commercial fishing boat crew may have been responsible for the shark’s death.”
Officers investigated that tip the same night, and spotted a fishing boat in the waters near where the shark had washed up. Officers spoke to the crew in the early morning when they came back to Santa Cruz Harbor, wildlife officials said.
Officers discovered a slew of fishing violations during a commercial inspection, including possessing undersize halibut, lacking and failing to turn in landing receipts and failing to weigh a commercial catch. They also discovered the weapon: There was a loaded rifle hidden behind a seat in the truck Pham used to haul his fish, according to wildlife officials.
“We’re very lucky we found the firearm that was used in the event,” Tognazzini said, according to Bay Area News Group.
Pham confessed to the crime, “claiming he shot the shark after seeing it swimming near the wings of his deployed fishing net,” wildlife officials said.
“He felt it was disturbing his fishing activity,” Tognazzini said, per Bay Area News Group. “He was upset with the shark and decided to shoot it.”
State and federal laws protect great white sharks, the Associated Press reported in June after a criminal investigation was launched.