Man charged with smug­gling sea cu­cum­bers, black abalone

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Joshua Emer­son Smith joshua.smith @sdunion­tri­

SAN DIEGO — The U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in San Diego this week ar­raigned a Tai­wanese cit­i­zen on charges of smug­gling more than 250 pounds of black abalone and Fus­cus sea cu­cum­bers into the coun­try from Mex­ico.

Wei Wei Wang, 37, was brought into fed­eral court on Wednesday as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the National Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. He’s ac­cused of help­ing to il­le­gally im­port 83 pounds of frozen abalone and 172 pounds of sea cu­cum­bers in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

An­other man charged in the case, 49-year-old Alan Ren of North­port, N.Y., re­mains a fugi­tive.

If found guilty, each would face up to 20 years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines.

Author­i­ties haven’t dis­closed whether the men tried to dis­guise their prod­ucts or whether those goods ac­tu­ally en­tered the U.S. or were con­fis­cated at a port of en­try.

“This case demon­strates the fed­eral law en­force­ment community’s on­go­ing vig­i­lance in un­cov­er­ing il­le­gal wildlife smug­gling and pros­e­cut­ing per­pe­tra­tors to the fullest ex­tent of the law,” act­ing U.S. Atty. Alana Robinson said in a state­ment. “Traf­fick­ers beware: We will take all nec­es­sary ac­tion to stop th­ese fi­nan­cially mo­ti­vated threats to our en­dan­gered species.”

Abalone and sea cu­cum­ber can fetch sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars per pound in the re­tail mar­ket, depend­ing on a wide va­ri­ety of fac­tors.

The pop­u­la­tion of black abalone, which live in the in­ter­tidal wa­ters off Cal­i­for­nia and Mex­ico, has de­clined more than 80% in the past three decades as a re­sult of with­er­ing syn­drome and habi­tat de­struc­tion. The sea crea­tures — which are seen as a del­i­cacy, es­pe­cially among many Asian cul­tures — have been listed as fed­er­ally en­dan­gered since 2009 and are il­le­gal to har­vest in Cal­i­for­nia.

Mean­while, the Fus­cus sea cu­cum­ber is pro­tected un­der the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species. Un­der the con­ven­tion, an ex­port per­mit and cer­tifi­cate from the coun­try of ori­gin is re­quired to bring that species into the U.S.

Fus­cus sea cu­cum­bers were listed as en­dan­gered in Mex­ico from 1994 to 2001; har­vest­ing was al­lowed again start­ing in 2002. An adap­tive man­age­ment plan was put in place, es­tab­lish­ing quo­tas and pop­u­la­tion mon­i­tor­ing.

Re­cent sur­veys show the species’ pop­u­la­tion den­sity is de­creas­ing.

“NOAA’s Of­fice of Law En­force­ment is com­mit­ted to elim­i­nat­ing the smug­gling of pro­tected species into the United States,” Will El­lis, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor with the agency’s law en­force­ment di­vi­sion, said in a state­ment. “Abalone and sea cu­cum­bers have been iden­ti­fied by NOAA Fish­eries as species that are vul­ner­a­ble to il­le­gal, un­re­ported and un­reg­u­lated fish­ing prac­tices and will be included in the Seafood Im­port Mon­i­tor­ing Pro­gram, which is sched­uled for im­ple­men­ta­tion on Jan. 1, 2018.”

Last month, a ma­jor fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion led to the in­dict­ment of a fa­ther-son duo who were charged with smug­gling into San Diego more than $17 mil­lion worth of il­le­gally-har­vested sea cu­cum­bers.

Smug­gling of sea cu­cum­bers is one of the most high­pro­file wildlife crimes in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, next to the il­le­gal trade of to­toaba fish blad­ders, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Fish and Wildlife of­fi­cials.

The dried fish blad­ders are sold to Asian mar­kets, some­times for as much as $30,000 apiece, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from the Los An­ge­les-based non­profit Ele­phant Ac­tion League.

Abalone and sea cu­cum­ber, seen as del­i­ca­cies, can fetch sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars per pound in the re­tail mar­ket.

David Wit­ting NOAA Restora­tion Cen­ter

BLACK ABALONE clus­ter to­gether in an in­ter­tidal crag on San Ni­co­las Is­land in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

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