MIAMI (AP) — It’s one of the seafood industry’s worst victims.
Each year, 73 million shark fins are cut off the backs of majestic marine predators, their bleeding bodies sometimes thrown into the sea where they are left to suffocate or die of blood loss.
But while the barbaric practice is driven by China, where shark fin soup is a status symbol for the rich and powerful, America’s seafood industry is not immune to the trade.
The recent criminal indictments highlight how US companies are supplying the market with wings, taking advantage of a patchwork of federal and state laws that activists say is as reprehensible as the illegal trade in elephant ivory today.
The complaint, filed quietly in Miami federal court last month, accused a Florida Keys-based exporter, Elite Sky International, of falsely labeling 5,666 pounds of China-bound shark fins as live Florida spiny lobsters.
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 transporting more than half a ton of live Florida lobsters to her native China without a license.
The increased scrutiny from law enforcement comes as Congress debates a federal ban on shark fins — which would make it illegal to import or export foreign-caught fins. Each year, US wildlife inspectors seize thousands of shark fins in transit to Asia due to failure to declare shipments.
While not all sharks are killed solely for their fins, none of the other shark parts harvested in the U.S. and elsewhere — such as its meat, jaws or skin — can compete with fins in terms of value. Depending on the type of shark, a pound of 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, campaign director for Washington-based Oceana, which supports the ban, said.
Since 2000, federal law has made it illegal to fin sharks and throw their bodies back into the ocean. However, individual states have wide discretion to decide whether businesses can harvest fins from docked sharks or import them from overseas.
The legislation working its way through Congress would almost completely ban trade with 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. .
Elite is among those opposed to the proposed ban, which has hired lobbyists to urge Congress to vote against the bill, lobbying records show.
It is not known where the elitist got its wings. But in the criminal complaint, the company was also accused of sourcing lobster from Nicaragua and Belize by falsely claiming it 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, a century-old law that makes it a crime to submit false paperwork for any wildlife shipped overseas.
A lawyer for Elite did not comment, nor did two IIFA representatives when reached by phone.
Shark species have declined by 71% since the 1970s due to overfishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group that tracks wildlife populations, estimates that more than a third of the world’s more than 500 shark species are threatened with extinction.
Contrary to industry complaints about excessive regulations, the United States is a model of sustainable shark management, Weber said. He pointed to a recent finding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that less than 23% of the 66 shark stocks in U.S. waters are protected from fishing. The status of more than half of the shark stocks is unknown.
The situation in Europe is even worse: a new report from Greenpeace, called “Hooked on Sharks,” documents the deliberate targeting of juvenile blue sharks by fishing fleets from Spain and Portugal. The report found that the US is the world’s fourth largest shark exporter after Spain, China and Portugal, with 3.2 million kilograms of meat – but not fins – exported in 2020 worth more than $11 million.
Instead of protecting a small shark fishing industry, Weber said the U.S. should blaze a trail to protect slow-growing, long-lived fish.
“We can’t ask other countries to clean up their act if we don’t do it well ourselves,” Weber said.
She said the current law is not enough of a deterrent in an industry where bad actors lured by the promise of big profits are a frequent problem.
Case and point: Mark Harrison, a Florida fisherman who pleaded guilty in 2009 to three criminal counts tied to his export of shark fins, some of them protected species. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and banned from having anything to do with the shark fin trade for five years.
But federal prosecutors allege that he reconnected with associates of his former co-conspirators in 2013, violating the terms of his probation. He was arrested in 2020 on charges of mail and wire fraud conspiracy, as part of a five-year investigation called Operation Apex, targeting a dozen people who profited from drug trafficking. Prosecutors allege that Harrison’s Florida-based Phoenix Fisheries was a “shell company” for individuals based in California, where the possession of fins has been illegal since 2011.
As part of the bust, the feds found documents about nearly 6 tons of shark fin exports and seized 18 bags of totoba fish, a delicacy taken from an endangered species in Asia. They also seized 18,000 marijuana plants, several weapons and $1 million in diamonds — pointing to a criminal enterprise that transcended illegal seafood and stretched deep into the Mexican and Chinese mafia underworlds.
“This operation is about much more than disrupting the abhorrent practice of hacking off shark fins and leaving them to sink into the ocean to make soup bowls,” said Bobby Christine, then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. the time
An attorney for Harrison declined to comment on the case, which has yet to go to trial. But unlike his co-defendants, Harrison has not been involved in any drug-related or weapons crimes. Supporters say he has complied with all laws and has been unfairly targeted by bureaucrats, ignoring the key role he played in the 1980s, when sharks were even more threatened, developing the US shark fishery.
“They appear to be using the current widespread sympathy for sharks for publicity and career advancement that would otherwise be very common,” reads a website run by supporters seeking to raise $75,000 for a “Shark Defense Fund” to help Harrison fight back. fee.
“In the process, they are trying to tarnish Mark’s reputation and attack the American shark fishery,” according to the website, which was taken down after the AP began investigating.
Damian Chapman, head of shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said the push to ban commercial shark fishing could backfire.
“If you cut the U.S. completely out of the fin trade, it doesn’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 Sen. Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, appeared to be driven by “shark fans” — not “shark fins” — and would have offered the same high level of protection to those interested in watching the fish species. Conserving marine mammals and sea turtles. He said that few in the U.S. engage in the cruel, wasteful practice of shark finning and that the U.S. role as a transit hub for fins could be improved without punishing U.S. fishermen.
“There’s a disconnect between perception and reality,” Chapman said. “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. This is good but we must support science-based management measures that address real problems.