75-Year-Old Fish Bladder Smuggler Sentenced To One Year In Federal Prison

A 75 year-old man from Calexico, California, has been sentenced to one year in federal prison for smuggling 241 fish bladders into the United States, according to the L.A. Times. The man reportedly planned on selling the fish bladders in the lucrative fish bladder black market.

Song Shen Zhen was originally arrested in April 2013, when police officials caught him crossing the border from Mexico carrying 12 fish bladders in the trunk of his car. They subsequently found 214 more fish bladders in his home.

What’s the big deal about fish bladders you – and everyone else – might ask? Apparently the fish bladders were from the endangered totoaba fish – a species only found in the Gulf of Mexico – which is a species protected by environmental laws in both the United States and Mexico.

Why would someone smuggle fish bladders from the totoaba fish into the United States? The fish bladder’s are highly prized in both Asia and the United States as ingredients for soup. The fish bladders are also used for supposed medicinal and cosmetological purposes. According to the Daily Mail, a single totoaba fish bladder on the black market can fetch between $7,000 and $14,000.

In 2013 alone, Mexican officials seized illegal totoaba fish bladders worth an estimated $2.3 million.

Jay Barlow, a marine mammal expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said about the smuggling of fish bladders:

“It’s aquatic cocaine. With two days of fishing, you can buy a new pickup truck.”

In addition to Song Shen Zhen’s case, last year a 49 year-old named Jason Xie was accused of receiving 169 bladders in a parking lot for resale in Calexico – about 120 miles east of San Diego. Anthony Sanchez Bueno (34) was charged as well. He was the one who brought the 169 fish bladders to Calexico from Mexico in three coolers. He told authorities that he was to be paid $700 for the trip. Clearly, he wasn’t getting top dollar from Xie.

A United States authority said of the fish bladder smuggling process:

“Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico, often through the United States. The remainder of the fish is left to rot on the beach.”

Song Shen Zhen’s home contained a veritable lab to process the fish bladders for sale, authorities said. Police found drying fans and special packaging materials used to ship the fish bladders overseas.

In addition to spending a year in federal prison, United States District Judge Marilyn Huff also ordered Song Shen Zhen to pay $120,500 in restitution to the Mexican environmental protection agency for smuggling the fish bladders.

Image via UT San Diego