Man accused of selling $3.6M rare fish bladders

SAN DIEGO — Seven people have been charged since February with smuggling swim bladders from the endangered Totoaba fish across the U.S. border from Mexico, federal authorities said Wednesday.

fish-bladderThe Totoaba’s large swim bladder — which is an internal gas-filled organ that helps a fish control its buoyancy — is highly prized for use in Chinese soups and is considered a delicacy.

Because the species is federally protected in both the United States and Mexico, it is illegal to take, possess, transport or sell Totoaba, said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.

Duffy said the Totoaba swim bladder smuggling represents a “unique and troubling” trend.

Authorities have seized 529 Totoaba swim bladders since February, and the spawning season is only halfway over, officials said.

“Homeland Security Investigations agents are committed to using our investigative authorities and resources to combat all forms of illegitimate cross-border trade,” said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for HSI in San Diego. “Not only did this investigation stop the exploitation of an endangered species for financial gain, but it exposed the illicit smuggling pathways and networks being used to bring these specimens into the country and beyond.”

Totoaba macdonaldi is the largest species in its genus, which includes California white sea bass and corvina, It can grow to more than 6 feet in length, fish bladders1weigh up to 220 pounds and live up to 25 years. It has been listed as an endangered species since 1979.

In the Chinese culture, the fish swim bladder is referred to as “fish maw” and may also come from a variety of non-endangered fish. Totoaba fish maw is valued for its high collagen content and some people believe the Totoaba swim bladders can boost fertility and improve circulation and skin vitality.

Black market value in the United States is about $5,000 per bladder and $10,000-plus in certain foreign Asian markets.

A Calexico man, 73-year-old Song Shen Zhen, was charged last week with smuggling Totoaba swim bladders into the United States at the Calexico border crossing. Agents seized a total of 241 swim bladders from Zhen’s car and home, worth an estimated $3.6 million if sold into foreign markets, according to court documents.