Two smugglers pleaded guilty in federal court for a scheme to import endangered brown sea cucumbers for tens of thousands of dollars.
Zunyu Zhao and Xionwei Xiao pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges of illegal importation of an endangered species and conspiracy.
The duo were trafficking in isostichopus fuscus, or the brown sea cucumber – an endangered species found off the Pacific coast of Mexico, Central America, and the Galapagos Islands.
The species was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2010, and the organization estimates their wild population is still decreasing.
However, they remain a high-value black market commodity in some places. They are eaten as a delicacy across countries in Asia and the Pacific.
In China, they also fetch a high price for their use in traditional medicine and their believed role as an aphrodisiac.
Sea cucumbers have shown medicinal value in ‘shown medicinal value such as wound healing, neuroprotective, antitumor, anticoagulant, antimicrobial, and antioxidant,’ according to the National Institute of Health, but there is little research supporting their use to increase libido.
Investigators identified multiple times Zhao and Xiao crossed the US-Mexico border at the Calexico Port of Entry with small packages containing the sea creatures.
Although they did not declare they were transporting animals, investigatorsuncovered text message conversations coordinating the transportation of the high-value sea creatures.
Federal prosecutors estimated that the sea creatures had a black market value of $435 per kilogram. The duo smuggled in at least 23.5kg of sea cucumbers, netting them a total of $10,222.
‘This office is committed to upholding the twin pillars of marine biodiversity and conservation,’ Acting United States Attorney Andrew R Haden said. ‘Criminals considering poaching protected species should be aware that this office will diligently investigate, thoroughly prosecute, and seek restitution no matter the species.’
An academic study published by researchers at Michigan State University shows that black market sea cucumber fishing and smuggling has become a lucrative business on the country’s Pacific coast.
The study estimates that authorities have seized about $29.5million in sea cucumbers since 2011.
The study’s authors say that the animal’s high value and global demand makes the illegal fisheries a ‘worthwhile investment for organized crime.’ It even notes of one instance from November 2021 when sea cucumbers were uncovered during the raid of a cartel safehouse being used to manufacture fentanyl.
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