A man accused of smuggling swim bladders of endangered fish into the United States from Mexico pleaded guilty Wednesday, the office of U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy confirmed.
Anthony Sanchez Bueno, 34, of Imperial, Calif., admitted to smuggling the swim bladders of endangered Totoaba fish across the border on March 30, 2013.
According to prosecutors, the swim bladder is an internal, gas-filled organ that helps a fish control its buoyancy. It is a highly-prized and expensive delicacy often used in Chinese soups and other dishes.
Prosecutors say that in Chinese culture, Totoaba swim bladder is valued for its high collagen content. Some people believe it can boost fertility and improve circulation and skin vitality.
Bueno admitted he entered the U.S. from Mexico at the Calexico West Port of Entry on Mar. 30 with three coolers carrying the swim bladders of 170 endangered Totoaba concealed under layers of fish and ice.
In all, Bueno intentionally hid 225 pounds of Totoaba swim bladders, which he knew he should have declared to U.S. authorities. The swim bladders were valued at more than $400,000, according to investigators.
Bueno said he planned to deliver the swim bladders to a man in Calexico, Calif. He also admitted he had entered the U.S. one month earlier with two coolers containing the swim bladders and had delivered them to a man in Calexico.
Bueno is scheduled to appear in court for his sentencing on Sept. 6. If convicted of the wildlife smuggling charge, he faces a maximum of 20 years in custody and a $250,000 fine.
Prosecutors say Totoaba, which can weigh up to 220 pounds, were once abundant in the Gulf of California, but their populations have declined drastically over the years due to overfishing, pollution and diversion of waters from the Colorado River. The fish has been listed as endangered since 1979 under the Endangered Species Act.
Between February and May 2013, border inspectors in Calexico have seized the swim bladders of more than 500 endangered Totoaba.