Lucrative fish-smuggling trend in California
CALEXICO — When Calexico resident Song Shen Zhen, 73, recently drove through a Calexico Port of Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer noticed plastic grocery bags under backseat floor mats.
There weren’t drugs inside the bags but something just as illegal and lucrative: 27 dried swim bladders of the endangered Totoaba macdonaldi fish found only in Baja California’s Gulf of California.
The species is federally protected in both the U.S. and Mexico and it’s illegal to take, possess, transport or sell Totoaba, pronounced toe-TWAH-bah.
However, it’s estimated that the fish bladders can be worth between $10,000 and $20,000 each on some foreign markets, said John Reed, a group supervisor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit.
The large swim bladders are highly prized for use in Chinese soups and considered an expensive delicacy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Southern District of California Office.
By Friday, Zhen became the seventh person charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged with Totoaba smuggling.
CBP officers have seized more than 500 Totoaba fish bladders at Calexico ports of entry since February, and they are conservatively valued at more than $5 million combined on the black market, Reed said.
CBP officials seized the 27 bladders from Zhen that day and allowed him to leave. However, he was kept under surveillance and followed to his Calexico home.
Authorities obtained a search warrant and discovered a sparsely furnished “Totoaba factory” inside, with swim bladders laid out in rows to dry under fans in hallways and rooms of the home.
An additional 214 fish swim bladders were found in the home, bringing Zhen’s total to 241, which is estimated to be worth more than $3.6 million in foreign markets.
Black market value in the U.S. is about $5,000 per bladder, and more than $10,000 each in certain foreign Asian markets.
There were also ledgers, packing material and other evidence consistent with shipment of Totoaba swim bladders overseas found in the home.
On March 30, Imperial resident Anthony Sanchez Bueno, 34, drove to the U.S. from Mexico with three coolers containing a top layer of fish fillets that hid the 170 Totoaba swim bladders below weighing a total of 225 pounds, according to a complaint.
The complaint further alleges that undercover agents delivered the coolers to Sacramento resident Jason Xie, 49, who was waiting in a Calexico hotel parking lot and acknowledged they were Totoaba at the time of delivery. Xie said he had purchased an earlier load of about 100 Totoaba swim bladders from the same person in February and paid between $1,500 and $1,800 each.
Mexicali resident Raquel Castaneda, 43, allegedly tried to smuggle 28 Totoaba swim bladders into the country April 1, and authorities say these arrests are indicative of a lucrative and busy local smuggling trend.
It’s being investigated by three agencies including U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, CBP, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit.
While some of the Totoaba may be going to national destinations, it’s believed that the majority of it is headed overseas, primarily to China.
Authorities said that most fishermen both from the U.S. and Mexico are aware of the fish and that it is illegal to fish Totoaba.
Calexico resident Alfonso Auyon said many years ago he tried the dish which he described as “delicious” but doesn’t consider it a delicacy. He doesn’t recall how much he paid for the dish.
In Chinese culture, fish swim bladder is referred to as “fish maw” and can also come from many non-endangered fish. However, some believe that Totoaba swim bladders can boost fertility as well as improve circulation and skin vitality.
Totoaba closely resembles another fish that was highly desired in the Asian community and pretty much fished to extinction. It’s believed that Mexicali’s large Chinese population may have helped identify the similar Totoaba fish as a delicacy option and developed a trade for it.
“The fish has been desired among the Asian community at least since the early 1900s and has probably been trafficked through this area,” Reed said. “We’re assuming that we have just recently discovered the illegal smuggling of it through the Calexico Ports of Entry.”
The fish can grow up to 7 feet in length and weigh more than 200 pounds. The Totoaba swim bladder is an internal gas-filled organ that helps the fish control its buoyancy.
Totoaba go to shallow areas of the Colorado River delta at the northern end of the Gulf of California to spawn annually, and populations have declined drastically due to overfishing, pollution and diversion of water from the Colorado River.
“Anytime you have a species where the whole group comes to one place in a short period of time, it’s very susceptible to overcommercialization and overcollecting,” said Lisa Nichols, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Senior Special Agent. “Even if people are currently seeing numbers of these out there, the thing is they could still be wiped out very quickly and that’s why this is so important to us. We need to get a handle on it.”
Totoaba was included in the list of most protected species covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1977 and listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1979. Mexico included it on its endangered species list in 1993.
Smuggling penalties include maximum penalties of up to 20 years in custody, $250,000 in fines and supervised release up to three years.
Calexico Port of Entry Assistant Port Director David Salazar said that if the fish is fresh, it’s typically hidden under legally imported fish in an ice chest. If it’s dried, it’s normally found in a suitcase or bag.
“This is an unusual seizure,” he said. “To understand the value of this endangered fish was amazing even to the officers at the Port of Entry. … The awareness of the officers has really picked up.”
While some cases may be related, it’s not believed that they all are. There’s no direct confirmation that cartels may be involved although they’re typically attracted to any form of lucrative trade.
Mexican authority counterparts are assisting the U.S. in combating the smuggling of the endangered fish.
Source : Imperial Valley Press