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Seven charged with smuggling parts of endangered fish into U.S.

April 25, 2013|By Tony Perry
  • Endangered Totoaba macdonaldi fish that have been harvested for their swim bladders. Seven people have been charged with smuggling the bladders to sell on the black market.
Endangered Totoaba macdonaldi fish that have been harvested for their… (U.S. attorney's office )

Seven people have been charged with smuggling parts of an endangered species of fish into the United States to profit from a lucrative black market, federal authorities in San Diego said.

The seven are charged with smuggling dried swim bladders from the endangered Totoaba macdonaldi. The bladders are prized for use in Chinese soups and can fetch up to $5,000 apiece in the United States, twice that amount in foreign markets in Asia, authorities said.

Authorities have seized 529 bladders since February. The fish travels in shallow waters at the mouth of the Colorado River and also the east coast of the Gulf of California. The swim bladder helps control buoyancy.

The latest person arrested was Song Shen Zhen, 73, of Calexico. He is charged with smuggling and unlawful importation of protected wildlife.

His home in Imperial County was a virtual "Totoaba factory" with rows of dried fish bladders, ledgers, packing materials and other evidence suggesting that Zhen ships the bladders overseas, according to federal documents.

The bladders found in the home could be worth more than $3.6 million.

Among its devotees, Totoaba macdonaldi's meat is thought to aid in fertility and skin vitality.

"Many species, including Totoaba, are teetering on the brink of extinction due to poaching to supply the illegal wildlife trade," said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office of law enforcement.

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 tony.perry@latimes.com

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