Two Buddhists who released £5,000 worth of crustaceans into the Channel as part of a religious ceremony have been fined almost £15,000 for causing “untold damage” to the environment.
Zhixiong Li and Ni Li helped throw live crabs and lobsters into the sea off Brightonas part of a “life release” ceremony in 2015, a court has heard.
The pair were part of a group of almost 1,000 people celebrating the visit of the Taiwanese Buddhist master Hai Tao.
Their ritual was performed in the belief that returning animals to the wild is good karma. But because the crustaceans were not native species, they threatened other marine life and government agencies had to spend thousands of pounds in an attempt to recapture the shellfish, offering fishermen a bounty to reel them in.
In the first case of its kind, Zhixiong Li, 30, an estate agent, and Ni Li, 33, a City banker, both from London, admitted wildlife offences and were fined.
Both defendants pleaded guilty to releasing non-native species into the wild at Brighton magistrates’ court this week.
Joseph Miller, prosecuting for the Marine Management Organisation, said the case first came to light after a Brighton fisherman captured some of the foreign shellfish in June 2015.
CCTV footage from Brighton marina showed the group of Buddhists chartering three boats, having also bought more than £2,500 worth of native crabs and lobsters from Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales at Shoreham harbour.
Miller said Zhixiong Li had bought the local shellfish and hired the boat. Further investigations found that 361 American lobsters and 350 Dungeness (US) crabs had been bought from a wholesale fish supplier, SeeWoo, in Greenwich, south-east London, by Ni Li.
Miller said: “Ni Li said they had been intended to be released as part of a Buddhist ceremony with no intention to harm them.
“Zhixiong had asked her to buy as many as possible. Miss Li followed the delivery to Brighton. Miss Li then lied to investigators saying she hadn’t realised the crabs and lobsters were foreign species and had taken them back home and kept them in a bath of saltwater. She later admitted she had made up the story.”
Only 323 crustaceans have been recovered and the most recent American lobsters found had been carrying “viable eggs”, showing they had been breeding.
District judge William Ashworth said: “The release of non-active species into the marine environment is regulated precisely because the potential impact on native fish stocks could be significant.
“Unfortunately, not all these specimens have been recovered and the last few demonstrated that the lobsters are capable of breeding and producing viable offspring, The full impact of what you did is not known.”
Ni Li was fined £5,300 and Zhixiong Li £500. They were also ordered to pay £9,000 compensation.
This is not the first time Hai Tao’s followers have got into trouble for their attempts to save animals. In 2012, followers released 100kg of cobras in a mountainous area not native to the snakes.