The suspect in a Southern California smuggling case set up a type of factory inside a Calexico home officials allege, with rooms filled with fans in order to dry the rare fish and ship it overseas for large amounts of money.
Song Shen Zhen, 73, first gained the attention of federal investigators when he was found to have more than two dozen of the Totoaba swim bladders in plastic bags under his vehicle’s car mats at the U.S.-Mexico border.
After agents released Zhen, they followed him to a home in Calexico, Calif., a border town near Mexicali. Prosecutors claim the man had set the home up as a Totoaba factory with more than 200 bladders laid out in rows to dry with fans blowing air on them.
Prosecutors also claim to have found ledgers that indicate the profit of the operation could reach $3.6 million if sold outside the country.
Customs and Border Protection officers have been noticing the rare fish, protected in both countries, showing up more often 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 an official release.
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.
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.
Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Justice