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)
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.
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or email@example.com