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Press Release

Sea Cucumber Smugglers Plead Guilty to Illegal Trafficking in Wildlife

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

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – August 30, 2023

SAN DIEGO – Zunyu Zhao (also known as Kathy Zhao) and Xionwei Xiao (also known as Luis Xiao) pleaded guilty in federal court this week to a two-count indictment charging them with conspiracy and illegal importation of sea cucumbers.

According to the indictment and plea agreement, starting on May 9, 2017, and through February 10, 2019, Zhao and Xiao conspired to illegally import Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumbers, a species protected under Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, without the appropriate permits and documentation.

In May 2017, Zhao was stopped at the Calexico Port of Entry, attempting to smuggle 11.50 kg of Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumbers. In February 2019, Zhao was stopped once again at the Calexico Port of Entry with 2 kg of undeclared Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumbers. Between 2017 and 2019, Zhao and Xiao messaged each other with texts and images of other transactions in their illegal Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumber importation conspiracy, as Zhao confirmed for Xiao each shipment that she smuggled into the United States.

On May 23, 2023, a Grand Jury sitting in San Diego issued a sealed indictment against both Zhao and Xiao. On June 9, 2023, Xiao was arrested at the U.S. border, and Zhao was arrested four days later.

The parties agreed that the fair market value of Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumbers is $435/kg, and the total value of the sea cucumbers trafficked during the conspiracy was $10,222.50. The defendants also agreed to pay restitution to the Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Ambiente, the Mexican governmental entity charged with protection of the environment.

Acting United States Attorney Andrew R. Haden stated, “This office is committed to upholding the twin pillars of marine biodiversity and conservation. Criminals considering poaching protected species should be aware that this office will diligently investigate, thoroughly prosecute, and seek restitution no matter the species.”

United States Fish and Wildlife Service Special-Agent-in-Charge Manisa Kung commented, “One of the highest priorities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement is to investigate individuals involved in the unlawful commercial trafficking and smuggling of wildlife here and around the world.”

Xiao is scheduled to be sentenced on September 29, 2023, at 10:30 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Todd W. Robinson. Zhao is scheduled to be sentenced on November 11, 2023, at 9:30 a.m., also before Judge Robinson.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carl Brooker and Melanie Pierson.

DEFENDANTS                                             Case Number 23-cr-00893-TWR                                      

Zunyu Zhao (also known as Kathy Zhao)                  Age: 51                                   Calexico, CA

Xionwei Xiao (also known as Luis Xiao)                  Age: 52                                   Mexicali, MX


Count 1: Conspiracy – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371

Count 2: Importation Contrary to Law – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 545

Count 1: Maximum penalty: Five years in prison and $250,000 fine

Count 2: Maximum penalty: Twenty years in prison and $250,000 fine


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.


Media Relations Director Kelly Thornton (619) 546-9726 or  

Updated August 30, 2023

Environmental Justice
Press Release Number: CAS23-0830-Zhao