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Press Release

Fishy Business – Smuggler Of Swim Bladders Is Sentenced In Federal Court

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of California

Today United States Attorney Laura E. Duffy announced the sentencing of Song Shen Zhen, for smuggling 241 swim bladders from endangered Totoaba fish from Mexico into the United States. The Honorable Marilyn L. Huff handed down a one year sentence to Zhen and ordered him to pay restitution in the amount of $120,500 to the “Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Ambiente,” Mexico’s environmental protection agency.

According to information presented during the sentencing, on April 10, 2013, at approximately 12:45 a.m., Zhen drove his 2010 Dodge Attitude into the United States at the Calexico West Port of Entry (“POE”). Zhen, the sole occupant of the vehicle, told the Customs and Border Protection Officer that he had nothing to declare.

The officer, however, observed a deformity in both floor mats located in the rear of the vehicle. Upon closer inspection, he discovered what appeared to be dried Totoaba swim bladders, which were contained in two plastic grocery bags hidden under the mats. In total, the inspector found 27 swim bladders weighing a total of approximately 1.85 kilograms (4.07 pounds). One bladder was seized for testing and Zhen was permitted to leave the POE.

Unbeknownst to Zhen, CBP agents followed him to his home in Calexico and conducted surveillance. After Zhen left the house in mid-morning, the agents obtained a search warrant. Inside the house, they discovered that the residence was sparsely furnished, contained few personal effects, and appeared instead to be set-up as a Totoaba drying factory. An additional 214 Totoaba swim bladders were laid out in rows to dry, with fans positioned to blow air over them. There was a significant quantity of packaging materials and other evidence consistent with the shipment of Totoaba swim bladders overseas. Based on the estimated values set forth above, the 241 swim bladders possessed by Zhen (27 smuggled and another 214 in the house) were worth approximately $361,500 in Mexico, $1.265 million upon resale in the U.S, and $3.6 million in the overseas black market.

Background on Totoaba:
Totoaba macdonaldi, also known as Cynoscion macdonaldi, is a species of marine fish. It can grow to more than 6½ feet in length, weigh up to 220 pounds, and live up to 25 years. This marine fish is the largest species within the scaienidae family. It is endemic only to the Gulf of California, the narrow inlet between Baja California and the Mexico’s mainland (also called the Sea of Cortez). During the Totoaba’s spawning season, which runs from approximately March to May each year, Totoaba fish travel to the shallower waters at the mouth of the Colorado River, making them vulnerable to commercial and sport fishermen.

Totoaba fish have internal air bladders that help them control their buoyancy in water. These air bladders, also called swim bladders, are highly prized in Asia for a variety of uses: as an ingredient in a specialty soup, for perceived therapeutic and medicinal purposes, and to improve the complexion. Swim bladders from the endangered Totoaba fish can be identified by distinctive tubes that are attached to the bladders.

Totoaba fish are protected as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. § 1531, et seq.) (“ESA”), the Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. § 3731, et seq.), and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”). These laws generally prohibit the taking, possessing, transporting, importing, sale, and trade of Totoaba fish.

Based on information law enforcement officers have developed from conversations with researchers in Mexico and Totoaba fish smugglers, the value of Totoaba swim bladders in Mexico is approximately $1,500-$1,800 each. Once imported into the United States, the value increases to $5,000 each. They can be resold for $10,000 to $20,000 apiece in the overseas market.

As it is not legal to fish for Totoaba in Mexico, a poacher cannot risk being caught in possession of the easily-identified body of the endangered fish. It is much simpler to transport only the bladder, which is lighter, smaller, and much more valuable. As a result, PROFEPA (the Mexican federal agency tasked with the protection of endangered species) reports encountering Totoaba taken from the Colorado River, carved open so their swim bladders can be removed, and left to die on the shores.

DEFENDANT   Case Number:
Song Shen Zhen Age: 75 Calexico, California

Smuggling, Title 18, United States Code, Section 545
Maximum penalties: 20 years in prison, $250,000 fine, 3 years of Supervised Release.


Department of Homeland Security – Homeland Security Investigations
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

*Indictments and complaints are not evidence that the defendant committed the crime charged.  All defendants are presumed innocent until the United States meets its burden in court of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.     

Updated July 23, 2015