Feds target US companies caught in lucrative shark fin trade

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MIAMI (TBEN) — It’s one of the fishing industry’s most gruesome hunts.

Each year the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are cut from the backs of the majestic marine predators, their bleeding bodies are sometimes dumped back into the ocean where they are left to suffocate or die of blood loss.

But while the barbaric practice is being driven by China, where shark fin soup is a status symbol for the rich and powerful, the US seafood industry is not immune to trade.

A spate of recent criminal charges shows how US companies, leveraging a patchwork of federal and state laws, are supplying a market for fins that activists say is as despicable as the now illegal elephant ivory trade once was.

A complaint quietly filed last month in Miami federal court accused an exporter based in the Florida Keys, Elite Sky International, of falsely labeling some 5,666 pounds of China-bound shark fins as live Florida crawfish.

Another company, South Florida-based Aifa Seafood, is also under criminal investigation for similar violations, according to two people on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

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

Law enforcement’s heightened scrutiny comes as Congress debates a federal ban on shark fins — making it illegal to even import or export fins caught abroad. Every year, US wildlife inspectors confiscate thousands of shark fins while in transit to Asia for failing to declare the shipments.

While not all sharks are killed just for their fins, none of the other shark parts harvested in the U.S. and elsewhere — such as the flesh, jaws, or skin — can compete with fins in value. Depending on the type of shark, a pound of fins can run for hundreds of dollars, making it one of the most expensive fish products by weight anywhere.

Since 2000, it has been illegal under federal law to cut off sharks’ fins and throw their bodies back into the ocean. However, individual states have a lot of latitude in deciding whether companies can harvest dead shark fins from a dock or import them from abroad.

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

Among those opposed to the proposed ban is Elite, which has hired lobbyists to urge Congress to vote against the bill, lobbying data shows.

It is not known where Elite got its fins. But the indictment also accused the company of sourcing lobster from Nicaragua and Belize that it falsely claimed was caught in Florida. The company, affiliated with a Chinese-American seafood exporter based in New York City, was accused of violating the Lacey Act, an age-old statute that makes it a crime to file false papers for animals sent abroad. sent.

An Elite lawyer declined to comment, just as two Aifa representatives could not be reached by phone.

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

Contrary to industry complaints about excessive regulation, the US is hardly a model for sustainable shark management, Webber said. She pointed to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finding that less than 23% of the 66 shark stocks in U.S. waters are safe from overfishing. The status of more than half of shark stocks is not even known.

Webber said that instead of protecting a small shark fishery, the US should pave the way to protect the slow-growing, long-lived fish.

“We can’t ask other countries to clean up their actions if we don’t do it right ourselves,” Webber said.

She said current laws are not enough of a deterrent in an industry where bad actors attracted by the promise of huge profits are a recurring problem.

Case and point: Mark Harrison, a Florida fisherman who pleaded guilty in 2009 to three criminal counts related to his export of shark fins, some of which were protected species. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and a five-year ban from having anything to do with the shark fin trade.

But federal prosecutors allege he again contacted associates of his former co-conspirators in 2013, in violation of the terms of his probation. He was arrested in 2020 on charges of mail conspiracy and telephony fraud as part of a five-year investigation dubbed Operation Apex, targeting a dozen individuals who also allegedly benefited from drug trafficking. Prosecutors allege Harrison’s Florida-based Phoenix Fisheries was a “shell company” for individuals in California, where fin possession has been illegal since 2011.

As part of the arrest, the FBI found documents on about 6 tons of shark fin exports and seized 18 totoaba fish bladders, a delicacy in Asia taken from an endangered species. They also seized 18,000 marijuana plants, multiple firearms and $1 million in diamonds — pointing to a criminal enterprise that transcended illegal seafood and stretched deep into the underworld of the Mexican and Chinese mafia.

A Harrison attorney declined to comment on the case, which has yet to be tried. But unlike his co-defendants, Harrison is not involved in drug-related or gun-related offenses. Supporters say he has followed all the laws and is being unfairly attacked by bureaucrats who overlook the key role he played in the 1980s, when sharks became even more threatened, developing the US shark fishery.

“They seem to be using the current widespread empathy for sharks for publicity and career advancement in what would otherwise be a very routine business,” reads a website run by supporters looking to raise $75,000 for a “Shark Defense Fund” to help Harrison in combating costs.

“As they try to tarnish Mark’s reputation and deal a blow to the US shark fishery,” the website said, which was removed after the TBEN began making inquiries.

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

“If you take the US completely off the fin trade, it won’t do anything to directly affect international demand and it’s likely that other countries, with much less regulation of their fisheries, will fill the void,” Chapman said.

He said the bill introduced by Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, appears to be driven by “shark fans” — not “shark fins” — and that those who want to see the fish species offer the same very high level of protection afforded to marine mammals and sea ​​turtles. He said few in the US are involved in the cruel, wasteful practice of shark finning and that the US role as a transit port for fins can be remedied without punishing US fishermen.

“There is a mismatch between perception and reality,” Chapman said. “In the 25 years I’ve been studying sharks, they’ve gone from demon fish to a group of species that many people want to protect. This is great, but we need to support science-based controls that address the real issues.”