Feds target US companies caught in lucrative shark fin trade

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MIAMI – It’s one of the most gruesome hunts in the seafood industry.

Each year, the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are severed from the backs of majestic marine predators, their bleeding bodies sometimes dumped into the ocean 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, the US seafood industry is not immune to the trade. .

A string of recent indictments highlights how corporate America, taking advantage of a patchwork of federal and state laws, is fueling a market for fins that activists say is as reprehensible as it once was the now illegal trade in elephant ivory.

A lawsuit filed quietly last month in federal court in Miami accused Florida Keys-based exporter Elite Sky International of falsely labeling some 5,666 pounds of shark fins bound for China as live crawfish. from Florida. Another company, South Florida-based Aifa Seafood, is also being criminally investigated for similar violations, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. The company is run by a Chinese-American woman who in 2016 pleaded guilty to shipping more than half a ton of live lobsters from Florida to her native China without a permit.

The heightened law enforcement scrutiny comes as Congress debates a federal shark fin ban, making it illegal to import or export even fins caught overseas. Every year, US wildlife inspectors seize thousands of shark fins in transit to Asia for failing to report shipments.

This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

While not all sharks are killed solely for their fins, none of the other shark parts harvested in the United States and elsewhere — such as its meat, jaws, or skin — can compete with fins in terms of value. Depending on the type of shark, a single pound of fins can fetch hundreds of dollars, making it one of the most expensive seafood products by weight.

“If you’re going bankrupt because you can’t sell fins anymore, then why are you actually fishing?” said Whitney Webber, campaign manager at Washington-based Oceana, which supports the ban.

Since 2000, federal law has prohibited cutting off shark fins and dumping their bodies in the ocean. However, individual states have wide latitude in deciding whether or not companies can harvest the fins of dead sharks from a dock or import them from overseas.

Legislation pending in Congress would impose a near-total ban on the fin trade, similar to the measure Canada took in 2019. The legislation, introduced in 2017 by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has majority support in the House and the Senate. .

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

It’s unclear where Elite got their fins. But in the criminal complaint, the company was also accused of buying lobster from Nicaragua and Belize that it said was caught in Florida. The company, affiliated with a New York-based Chinese-American seafood exporter, has been accused of violating the Lacey Act, a century-old law that makes it a crime to submit false documentation for any wildlife shipped to the ‘foreign.

A lawyer for Elite would not comment, nor would two representatives for Aifa when reached by phone.

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

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

The situation in Europe is even worse: a new Greenpeace report, titled “Hooked on Sharks”, has revealed what it says is evidence of the deliberate targeting of juvenile blue sharks by fishing fleets from Spain and Portugal. The report found that the United States is the world’s fourth largest exporter of sharks behind Spain, China and Portugal, with exports of 3.2 million kilograms of meat – but not fins – worth over $11 million in 2020.

Webber said that rather than protecting a small shark fishing industry, the United States should lead the way in protecting slow-growing, long-lived fish.

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

She said current laws aren’t a deterrent enough in an industry where bad actors lured by the promise of huge profits are a recurring problem.

Case and point: Mark Harrison, a Florida fisherman who in 2009 pleaded guilty to three counts related to his export of shark fins, some of which are protected species. He was fined $5,000 and banned from having anything to do with the shark fin trade for five years.

But federal prosecutors allege he reconnected with associates of his former co-conspirators in 2013 in violation of the terms of his probation. He was arrested in 2020 on conspiracy to mail and wire fraud as part of a five-year investigation, called Operation Apex, targeting a dozen individuals who also allegedly profited from the drug trade. Prosecutors allege Florida-based Phoenix Fisheries was a “front company” for individuals based in California, where possession of fins has been illegal since 2011.

As part of the bust, federal authorities found records of some 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, several firearms and $1 million worth of diamonds, indicating a criminal enterprise that transcended illegal seafood and reached deep into Mexican and Chinese mafia underworld.

“This operation is about more than disrupting the despicable practice of cutting off the fins of sharks and letting them drown in the sea to create 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 has not yet gone to trial. But unlike his co-defendants, Harrison is not involved in any drug or weapons offences. His supporters say he has complied with all laws and is being unfairly targeted by bureaucrats unaware of the key role he played in the 1980s, when sharks were most threatened, in developing the fishery to sharks in the United States.

“They appear to be using the current widespread empathy for sharks for publicity and career advancement in what would otherwise be a very common business,” reads a supporter-run website seeking to raise $75,000 for a “Fund.” defense of sharks” to help Harrison fight the charges.

“In the process, they are seeking to tarnish Mark’s reputation and strike a blow to American shark fishing,” according to the website, which was taken down after the AP began investigating.

Demian Chapman, who directs shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said the drive to ban commercial shark fishing could backfire.

“If you take the U.S. out of the fin trade entirely, it won’t 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, a Democrat from New Jersey, appears to be driven by “shark fans” – not “shark fins” – and those who want to see the species of fish benefit from the same very high level of protection. given to marine mammals and sea turtles. He said few people in the United States are involved in the cruel and unnecessary practice of shark finning and that the role of the United States as a hub for fins can be corrected without punishing American fishermen. .

“There’s a disconnect between perceptions and reality,” Chapman said. “In the 25 years I’ve studied sharks, they’ve gone from being a demon fish to a group of species that a lot of people want to protect. That’s great, but we need to support science-based management measures. that deal with the real issues.

Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

Contact the AP Global Investigation Team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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