Feds target U.S. companies caught in lucrative shark fin trade

It is one of the worst victims of the seafood industry.

Each year, 73 million shark fins are clipped off the backs of majestic marine predators, their bleeding bodies sometimes thrown back into the ocean, where they are left to suffocate or die from blood loss. Are being given.

But while the barbarian practice is driven by China, where shark fin soup is a status symbol for the rich and powerful, America’s seafood industry is not untouched by the trade.

A series of recent criminal indictments shed light on how U.S. companies, taking advantage of a patchwork of federal and state laws, are supplying a market for feathers that activists say have turned into ivory. Now – as reprehensible as illegal trade.

A complaint was quietly filed last month in Miami federal court, accusing an exporter based in the Florida Keys, Elite Sky International, of mistaking a 5,666-pound China-bound shark fin as a live Florida spiny lobster. was labeled with. Another company, South Florida-based IIFA Seafood, is also under criminal investigation for similar violations, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

The company is managed by a Chinese-American woman who pleaded guilty in 2016 to shipping more than half a ton of live Florida lobster to her native China without a license.

Comes as heightened scrutiny from law enforcement Congress debates federal ban on shark fins Making it illegal to import or export even foreign caught feathers. Every year, U.S. wildlife inspectors confiscate thousands of shark fins during transit in Asia for failing to declare shipments.

While not all sharks are killed simply for their fins, no part of a shark harvested in the US and elsewhere – such as its flesh, jaws or skin – can compete with the fins in terms of value. Depending on the type of shark, a one-pound fin can fetch hundreds of dollars, making it one of the most valuable seafood products by weight.

“If you’re going out of business because you can’t sell fins anymore, what are you really fishing for?” Whitney Weber, a campaign director for Oceana, Washington, who supports the ban.

Since 2000, federal law has made it illegal to cut off shark fins and throw their bodies back into the ocean. However, individual states have broad leeway to decide whether businesses can harvest fins from dead sharks at a dock or import them from overseas.

The law working its way through Congress would impose an almost complete ban on trade in Finns, similar to the action taken by Canada in 2019. The legislation, introduced in 2017 by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has majority support in both the House and Senate. ,

Among those opposing the proposed ban is Elite, which has hired lobbyists to urge Congress to vote against the bill, lobbying records show,

It is not known where the Elite got its wings. But in the criminal complaint, the company was also accused of sourcing lobster from Nicaragua and Belize that it falsely said was caught in Florida. A company affiliated with a Chinese-American seafood exporter based in New York City was charged with violating the Lacey Act, a century-old statute that makes it a crime to submit false paperwork for any wildlife shipped overseas.

A lawyer for Elite did not comment, and neither did the two IIFA representatives who were contacted by phone.

Shark species decline by 71%

Over fishing has led to a 71% decline in shark species since the 1970s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group that monitors wildlife populations, estimates that more than a third of the world’s 500-plus shark species are at risk of extinction.

Contrary to industry complaints about excessive regulations, the US hardly has a model of sustainable shark management, Weber said. She pointed to a recent finding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that less than 23% of shark stocks in US waters are protected from overfishing. More than half the shark stock status is not even known.

The situation in Europe is worse: a new report by Greenpeace Called “Hook On Shark” revealed what it said was evidence of deliberate targeting of juvenile blue sharks by fishing fleets off Spain and Portugal. The report found that the US is the world’s fourth largest shark exporter after Spain, China and Portugal, with exports of 3.2 million kilograms of meat – but not fins – worth more than $11 million in 2020.

Weber said that instead of protecting a small shark fishing industry, the US should find a way to protect the slow-growing, long-lived fish.

“We can’t ask other countries to clean up their act if we ourselves are not doing it properly,” Weber said.

He said the existing laws are not enough of a deterrent in an industry where bad actors crafted with the promise of huge profits are a recurring problem.

Case in point: Florida fisherman Mark Harrison, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to three criminal counts involving the export of shark fins, some of them a protected species. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and banned from doing anything with the shark fin trade for five years.

But federal prosecutors allege he contacted the aides of his former co-conspirators again in 2013, in violation of the terms of his probation. He was arrested in 2020 as part of a five-year investigation on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, called Operation Apex, that targeted a dozen individuals who allegedly sold narcotics. He also made profits from smuggling. Prosecutors allege that Harrison’s Florida-based Phoenix Fisheries was a “shell company” for individuals based in California, where possession of the fins has been illegal since 2011.

As part of the bust, the Feds About six tons of shark fin export documents found and seized 18 Totoaba fish bladders, a delicacy from Asia derived from an endangered species. They also confiscated 18,000 marijuana plants, several firearms, and $1 million in diamonds — alluding to a criminal enterprise that transcended illegal seafood and delved deep into the Mexican and Chinese mafia underworld.

“This operation does more than disrupt the abhorrent practice of chopping off shark fins and drowning them in the ocean to make a bowl of soup,” said Bobby Christine, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. Time.

A lawyer for Harrison declined to comment on the case, which is pending trial. But unlike his co-defendants, Harrison is not implicated in any drug-related or weapons crimes. Supporters say they have complied with all laws and are being unfairly targeted by bureaucrats who overlooked their important role in the 1980s, when sharks were even more threatened, leading to American sharks. Fishing was developing.

A website run by supporters seeking to raise $75,000 for the “Shark Defense Fund” to help fight Harrison reads, “They are using the existing widespread sympathy for sharks for publicity and career advancement.” , which would otherwise be a very routine affair.” charge.

“In the process, they are trying to tarnish Mark’s reputation and deal a blow to American shark fisheries,” according to the website, which was removed after the AP began an inquiry.

Fishing bans could backfire

Damien Chapman, chief of shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said the push to ban commercial fishing of sharks could backfire.

Chapman said, “If you cut the US out of fin trade entirely, it will do nothing to directly affect international demand, and it is likely that other countries, with very little regulation of their fisheries Together, we will fill the void.”

Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, appears to be driven by “shark fans” — not “shark fins” — and that people who want to see fish species get the same high level of protection as marine mammals, he said. and provided to sea turtles. He said only a few in the US are involved in the cruel, reckless practice of shark finning and that America’s role as a transit hub for fins can be corrected without punishing American fishermen.

Chapman said, “There is a connection between perceptions and reality.” “In the 25 years I’ve been studying sharks, they’ve gone from monster fish to a group of species that many people want to protect. That’s great but we have to support science-based management measures that are real. solve problems.”

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