U.S. authorities say they’ve broken up a conspiracy to traffic shark fins in and out of Florida by a company based in California, where their sale and export is banned by law.
In an indictment released Sept. 4 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia, prosecutors allege that 12 people took part in a national smuggling operation that falsified documents and committed wire fraud to hide the fact that a Florida-based shark fin exporter was operating out of California.
The 37-page indictment was unveiled just weeks before Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Kristin Jacobs Ocean Conservation Act, which bans shark fins harvested abroad from being imported into the state.
The bill, named after a local lawmaker who died of cancer earlier this year, carves out exceptions for some licensed traders and is a result of years of contentious political wrangling between ocean conservationists and Florida’s fishing industry
According to the conservation NGO WildAid, fins from as many as 73 million sharks a year wind up in pricey bowls of soup — a delicacy in East Asia that can cost hundreds of dollars per serving.
Six federal law enforcement agencies were involved in building the case, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Prosecutors say the charges are a milestone in efforts to combat illegal shark fin trafficking in the U.S.
“United with our partner agencies, we have shut down an operation that fed a seemingly insatiable overseas appetite for illegally traded wildlife, and seized ill-gotten assets derived from that despicable criminal enterprise,” U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine said in a press release.
A years-long investigation leads to 12 arrests
According to agents with the USFWS, the case is part of a broader effort to disrupt wildlife trafficking networks working inside and outside of U.S. borders. The agency has similar powers to the FBI and DEA, and in recent years it’s started to take on increasingly complex investigations that can span multiple countries.
“About five years ago, we started noticing a significant trend in shark fin shipments either arriving here in the United States or transiting through by air cargo or other methods,” Tim Santel, a special agent with the USFWS, told Mongabay. “And that really raised some concerns for us as far as the vast amount that was being traded.”
Agents began investigating a Florida-based company called Phoenix Fisheries, Inc., owned by Mark Leon Harrison, 59, whom the indictment describes as an importer of shark fins from Mexico and elsewhere en route to Hong Kong.
While federal law makes it illegal to cut the fins off sharks and throw their bodies back into the ocean before bringing the fins to shore, individual states have wide leeway to decide whether or not fishing businesses can harvest fins from dead sharks at a dock or import them from overseas. Until recently, Florida’s laws permitted the import and sale of shark fins, provided traders were following the rules.
California, however, took a different tack. In 2011, the state passed a strict ban on the sale, purchase, and possession of shark fins, so when USFWS agents discovered connections between Phoenix Fisheries and a California-based company called Serendipity Solutions, LLC, it raised red flags.
The indictment accuses Serendipity Solutions of secretly directing the operations of Phoenix Fisheries from across the country and hiding payments in third-party accounts in order to circumvent California’s ban. Phoenix Fisheries is said to have exported 5,670 kilograms (12,500 pounds) of shark fins to Hong Kong in two shipments in 2016 and 2017 with a total declared value of $223,565.
As USFWS investigators surveilled the two companies and set up meetings between their owners and undercover agents, they say they also uncovered evidence of money laundering and marijuana trafficking.
“It started off as a wildlife case, but as we’ve often said, wildlife trafficking is interconnected in these transnational organizations along with narcotics, drugs, and human trafficking,” Santel said. “They’re all interrelated.”
After the charges were unsealed, federal agents arrested 12 people and carried out 22 search warrants across the country, seizing nearly $8 million in assets. They also confiscated 18 bladders from the endangered Totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi), another East Asian delicacy, worth tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram.
Bruce Harvey, an Atlanta-based attorney for Terry Xing Zhao Wu, 45, who is alleged to have operated Serendipity Solutions out of his home in Burlingame, California, said it was too early to issue a statement about the case. But in an email to Mongabay, he pointed out that removing and selling fins from sharks isn’t necessarily illegal in Florida.
“Regardless of what one may think of the practice of shark finning itself, it is a legal activity, subject to both Federal and State regulation and licensing,” he wrote. “It is our understanding that any activity that occurred in this case was undertaken by duly licensed and approved operators.”
Bans gain steam in the U.S., but disputes linger over their effectiveness
The charges against Wu and his associates point to murky waters in state and federal regulations on the shark fin trade. Notably absent from the indictment are any specific charges for violating federal or state wildlife laws – instead, they include allegations of wire and mail fraud, drug trafficking, and money laundering. While those are more serious charges, they reflect the fact that until recently in Florida it was not illegal to import and export shark fins from overseas.
“During our operation, my agents probably dealt with or at least observed and documented somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 tons of shark fins,” special agent David Hubbard told Mongabay. According to Hubbard, agents generally have to go undercover to determine whether a trader is sourcing and handling the fins legally or not.
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of other businesses that were probably operating, so who knows what the real number is,” he added.
Because of its key position in the global shipping economy, the U.S. often serves as a waypoint for hauls of shark fins collected from Latin American and Caribbean waters before they are shipped to buyers abroad.
Now, Florida joins California as one of 15 U.S. states to pass a strict ban on the sale and possession of shark fins, which advocates say will keep those shipments out of ports in the state. But the shark finning industry has proved notoriously adaptable; Florida became a transit hub for fins partially because states like California and Texas implemented bans of their own, with at least some portion of the trade likely to now shift to neighboring states.
And by carving out loopholes for licensed traders to continue selling fins for now, some advocates say Florida’s ban didn’t go far enough. Without tough federal legislation that bans the possession and sale of shark fins across the country, they say determined smugglers will just do what Serendipity Solutions is accused of and hide their involvement in out-of-state transactions.
“This case makes clear that statewide bans on the sale and trade of shark fins, while a step in the right direction, leave holes in the system that perpetrators can and do exploit,” said Ariana Spawn, federal policy manager for the conservation NGO Oceana. “That’s why we need to put an end to the shark fin trade in the United States once and for all by passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in the Senate.”
In late 2019, that act passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 3-1 margin. A companion bill is under consideration by the U.S. Senate.
The fishing industry has lobbied hard against state and federal bans, saying they hurt small businesses and don’t make much of a dent in the global shark fin trade. The National Marine Fisheries Service agrees. According to the federal agency, the U.S. only exports around 1% of the world’s shark fins, and blanket bans don’t help manage shark populations.
Some conservationists say they aren’t all wrong. While the cruel practice of removing a shark’s fins and leaving it to drown in the ocean looms large in the public consciousness, it’s not the primary threat to global shark populations. Demand for shark fin soup has been declining in China, and in an interview with Mongabay, shark conservation expert David Schiffman said that the focus on fins is misguided, with bans like the one in Florida overshadowing more effective approaches to protecting sharks from being overfished.
For the USFWS, though, the calculation is simple: If the laws are on the books, they’ll try to enforce them.
“We’re going after these criminal organizations the same way we’ve gone after others involved in illegal activities,” Hubbard said. “And we’re using the full resources of the U.S. government to hold them accountable.”
This article by Ashoka Mukpo was first published on Mongabay.com on 28 September 2020. Lead Image: Shark fins and Totoaba fish bladders seized by U.S. authorities during Operation Apex, by U.S. Department of Justice.
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