LOS ANGELES (CN) – A businessman on Tuesday admitted he used his company to smuggle protected totoaba fish into the United States and export its bladders to China, where they are considered medicinal delicacies.
Kam Wing Chan admitted he used his Kaven Co. furniture company to smuggle the protected totoaba and endangered abalone, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. He was ordered to pay $55,000 in restitution to Mexico, and a $14,500 fine for smuggling protected wildlife.
Totoaba can grow to enormous size — 100 kilos and 6½ feet — but have been virtually wiped out in their only natural habitat, the Gulf of California, because they swim to the shallow waters at the mouth of the Colorado River to spawn, making them easy prey for humans.
Totoaba were once considered a delicacy in Mexico – the whole fish, not just the bladders – but public education has helped reduce the demand there for them. They are protected in Mexico, in the United States and by international treaty.
The Chinese prize just the swim bladders, so smugglers often drag the fish from shallow waters, cut out their bladders and leave the fish to die and rot on the shore.
The swim bladders help the totoaba control its buoyancy by admitting or expelling air. Chinese folks consider the bladder delicious, and also believe, on no medical evidence, that they improve virility, the complexion, and have other health benefits.
Chan also admitted he smuggled endangered white and black abalone, also considered delicacies. Only 1 percent of white abalone remain from a population of millions in the 1970s, a size so small that wildlife experts expect them to become extinct.
Black abalone have become locally extinct in most areas south of Santa Barbara County. At its peak, in 1973, fishermen took 868 metric tons of black abalone in a single year: 1.9 million lbs. of it. They too are threatened with extinction, due to the increased distance between males and females.
Chan, 61, of Monterey Park, could have been sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
Prison terms are unusual for animal smugglers, despite the damage they do.
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