April 26, 2013 at 7:05 AM ET
The 73-year-old suspect in a smuggling case first got attention of federal investigators when they found 27 fish bladders in plastic bags under his vehicle’s car mats at the U.S.-Mexico border.
After agents released Song Shen Zhen, they followed him to a home in Calexico, Calif., a mid-sized city east of San Diego on the border. There they found that he had set up a factory filled with fans to dry the bladders of the endangered Totoaba fish, a once abundant fish that was heavily fished. The goal, officials say, was to ship the fish bladders overseas for large amounts of money.
An expensive delicacy in China, Totoaba meat is used in soups. Many believe it to be a treatment for infertility or circulation and skin problems.
At the factory, they found 240 bladders laid out in rows to dry with the fans blowing on them. Federal prosecutors say they found ledgers that indicate the operation could have made more than $3.6 million profit if the fish had been sold abroad.
Customs and Border Protection officers have been noticing the rare fish, which can grow to 6 ½ feet in length, protected in the U.S. and Mexico, showing up in coolers hidden inside vehicles. Since February, inspectors have seized approximately 483 pounds of Totoaba in Calexico, officials said.
In the last two months, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has charged seven people with Totoaba smuggling.
“While we may never know how many Totoaba bladders were harvested illegally, such disregard for the protections that were put in place to benefit this endangered species could have a disastrous effect on the fish population,” Deputy Chief Edward Grace said in a statement.
The fish are found in the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and Mexico. As part of their annual migration, Totoaba head north to the Colorado River delta where they spawn from March to May.
If convicted, Zhen faces 25 years in custody and a $500,000 fine.