SAN DIEGO (CN) - Federal prosecutors charged a man with running a home "Totoaba factory," smuggling and selling swim bladders of the endangered, protected fish that would bring more than $3.5 million on the black market.
Song Shen Zhen, 73, is the seventh person busted and charged since February with smuggling the endangered fish totoaba macdonadi into the United States from Mexico.
Totoaba live only in the Sea of Cortez, the small inlet between Baja California and mainland Mexico. Though once abundant, overfishing, pollution and the damming of the Colorado River have caused their population to decline drastically.
Since 1979, totoaba have been on the protected species list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They are also protected in Mexico since 1994.
Despite these safeguards, totoaba bladder is a sought-after ingredient for fish maw soup, a delicacy in China that is thought to improve the skin, blood circulation and fertility of those who consume it.
Other varieties of fish can be used in the soup, but the totoaba is especially prized for its collagen content. Totoaba can inflate the swim bladder with air to alter its buoyancy.
Prosecutors say Zhen was caught crossing the Mexican border on April 10 with plastic bags containing dried fish bladders in the back seat of his car. Officers found 27 swim bladders hidden under the floor mat. Each organ has a black market value of $5,000 in the United States or up to $10,000 in Asia.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents executed a warrant for Zhen, and a search of his home in Calexico, Calif., revealed a totoaba processing factory, according to the indictment.
His home allegedly had empty rooms filled with rows of fish bladders drying under fans. In all, authorities said they recovered 240 fish bladders, worth an estimated $3.6 million in foreign markets.
Prosecutors said they have caught six others from unrelated operations, smuggling the fish bladders into the United States.
Oi "Sean" Chung, 53, of Monterey Park, Calif., has been charged with regard to the smuggling of 11 bladders, brought over the border on Feb. 27 and March 30.
With a value of $16,500, the 11 fish had a resale value of $55,000, according to the criminal complaint.
Anthony Sanchez Bueno, 34, of Imperial, was allegedly caught smuggling 225 pounds of totoaba swim bladders on March 30.
A controlled delivery to Bueno's contact resulted in the subsequent arrest of Jason Jin Shun Xie, 49, of Sacramento, according to the complaint.
Authorities have estimated the black market value of that shipment at $235,500.
On April 1, agents allegedly seized 28 totoaba bladders from the vehicle of Raquel Castaneda, 54, of Mexicali, Mexico, as she passed over the border.
All defendants face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 each in fines. Authorities have not yet released the names of two of the seven who are still at large.
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