SAN DIEGO (AP) — Seven people have been charged with smuggling bladders from an endangered fish in what authorities said Wednesday may be a growing international practice in which the bladders are sold for more than $10,000 each to be used in a highly desired soup.
U.S. border inspectors in Calexico have seized about 500 bladders since February that were believed to be destined for China and Hong Kong, said John Reed, a group supervisor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit.
The probe began when an inspector spotted about 30 bladders buried in an ice chest.
The bladders came from totoaba fish that live exclusively in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Also known as Mexican giant bass or giant croaker, the fish can measure up to 7 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. The cream-colored, leathery bladders alone measure up to 3 feet.
The fish are captured with gillnets when they migrate in the spring to the shallow waters in the northern Sea of Cortez, authorities said. The gas-filled bladders, which keep the fish buoyant, are removed and taken to stash houses along the border, with the carcasses left to rot on gulf shores near the tourist town of San Felipe.
“It sounds like a substantial amount of them are going from Mexico directly to China but then we’ve also been seeing a large number being smuggled into the U.S.,” Reed said.
The totoaba has been protected under the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species since 1976 and was added to the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1979. Fishing is also prohibited in Mexico.
The totoaba population began to plummet in the 1940s after construction of the Hoover Dam in the U.S. limited the flow of Colorado River water into Mexico. Totoaba spawned near the mouth of the river.
Heavy fishing and inadvertent capture of young fish in shrimp nets also exacerbated the decline.
Just as sharks are coveted for their fins used in a different Asian soup, the totoaba is desired for its meat but even more for its dried bladders. The bladders are used in fish maw soup, absorbing flavors of other ingredients.
The soup is also made with bladders of other fish, including the bahaba, an endangered fish from the south coast of China that is prized for medicinal purposes.
Jason Jin Xie, 49, of Sacramento was charged in federal court with unlawful trade in wildlife, accused of taking delivery of 169 bladders on March 30 in a hotel parking lot in Calexico, about 120 miles east of San Diego. Xie told investigators he was paid $1,500 to $1,800 for each of 100 bladders in February.
Anthony Sanchez Bueno was charged with the same crime after authorities said he drove the 169 bladders across the downtown Calexico border crossing in three coolers. He told investigators he was to be paid $700.
Investigators believe U.S. citizens are transporting the bladders to Los Angeles then to China. Reed said they are being caught illegally by the hundreds, suggesting the species could be coming back after years of careful breeding by Mexican researchers.