Fish Bladder Smuggler|Gets a Year on Ice

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A Calexico man was sentenced this week to a year in federal prison for smuggling into the United States 241 swim bladders taken from the endangered totoaba fish.
     U.S. District Judge Marilyn L. Huff on Monday also ordered Song Shen Zhen to pay $120,500 in restitution to Mexico’s environmental protection agency, Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
     The totoaba, which can grow to 6 feet or more and live for 25 years, is protected under the Endangered Species Act. It is indigenous to the Gulf of California.
     “During the totoaba’s spawning season, which runs from approximately March to May each year, Totoaba fish travel to the shallower waters at the mouth of the Colorado River, making them vulnerable to commercial and sport fishermen,” the U.S. attorney said in a statement.
     Zhen brought 27 fish bladders from Mexico into the United States in the early hours of April 10, 2013. Stopped by Customs officials at the Calexico West Port of Entry in his Mexican Dodge compact car, Zhen told officials he had nothing to declare.
     A Customs officer discovered the dried totoaba swim bladders in two plastic bags under floor mats at the back of the car. One bladder was taken for closer inspection. Zhen was allowed to leave but border agents followed him home, prosecutors said.
     After getting a search warrant, the agents entered Zhen’s Calexico residence after he left that morning, prosecutors said.
     “Inside the house, they discovered that the residence was sparsely furnished, contained few personal effects, and appeared instead to be set up as a totoaba drying factory. An additional 214 totoaba swim bladders were laid out in rows to dry, with fans positioned to blow air over them,” according to the U.S. attorney.
     The value of the 241 swim bladders was estimated at $361,500 – up to $1,800 for each bladder in the Mexican market, or $1.265 million or $5,000 each in the U.S. market.
     In Asia, the bladders are sought for their supposed healing properties, as an ingredient for soup and as a skin treatment.
     Zhen’s haul of fish could be worth up to $3.6 million or $20,000 per bladder in foreign black markets, prosecutors said.
     “As it is not legal to fish for totoaba in Mexico, a poacher cannot risk being caught in possession of the easily identified body of the endangered fish. It is much simpler to transport only the bladder, which is lighter, smaller, and much more valuable,” the U.S. attorney said. “As a result, PROFEPA (the Mexican federal agency tasked with the protection of endangered species) reports encountering totoaba taken from the Colorado River, carved open so their swim bladders can be removed, and left to die on the shores.”
     Prosecutors charged Zhen with smuggling under Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 545.

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