Lucrative fish-smuggling trend active in region
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Senior Special Agent Lisa Nichols holds up a Totoaba fish bladder seized by federal authorities at a Calexico port of entry. The fish bladders are sold on black markets for potentially thousands of dollars each to be used in Asian delicacy cooking. (CHELCEY ADAMI PHOTO / April 25, 2013)
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.