California authorities target smuggling of bladders from endangered fish

Wed Apr 24, 2013 11:56pm EDT
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By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - U.S. border officers in California are seizing a large number of smuggled bladders from an endangered fish that are prized for use in Chinese soups, with seven people charged since February in connection with the trade, authorities said on Wednesday.

The bladders of the totoaba macdonaldi fish are smuggled across the border from Mexico, with each organ fetching $5,000 on the U.S. black market and over $10,000 in Asia, federal prosecutors said. The fish is found in the Gulf of California between the Mexican mainland and Baja California.

The totoaba's swim bladder is a tube-shaped organ that fills with gas to help control the buoyancy of the fish, which the U.S. Attorney's Office said can grow over 6 feet long, weigh up to 220 pounds (100 kg) and live to the age of 25.

The United States listed the totoaba as an endangered species in 1979 and they are also protected in Mexico. Officials said the fish's bladder was seen in some Chinese cuisine as a prime ingredient in a type of soup and prized for its supposed ability to boost fertility and circulation.

"The Mexican fish is very similar to a Chinese species of fish that was eaten to extinction," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent in Charge Jill Birchell told reporters.

The totoaba spawn in the spring, and during that time they swim to shallow waters at the mouth of the Colorado River on the north end of the Gulf of California and fishermen begin to go after them, as the black market trade in the animal's swim bladders heats up, officials said.

"The shores are littered with carcasses because catching them (totoaba) is illegal and they don't want to move the entire fish," Birchell said.

In the latest case that led to criminal charges, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer inspecting a car at the Calexico-Mexicali port of entry, about 130 miles east of San Diego, found 27 totoaba bladders hidden under floor mats in the back seat of a car, U.S. prosecutors said in a statement.   Continued...

Swim bladders of totoaba macdonaldi fish are pictured in the US Attorney's office in San Diego, California April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Marty Graham