Feds Bust Organized Crime Ring Trading in Shark Fins and Drugs

Shark fins on a Hong Kong sidewalk     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times reported late last week that federal prosecutors are pressing charges against a ring of a dozen people and two businesses on opposite coasts for running a multimillion-dollar organization involved in international money laundering, drug trafficking, and illegal wildlife trade in shark fins.  Law enforcement authorities seized a bevy of “valuables,” including nearly $8 million in cash, diamonds, precious metals, 18,000 marijuana plants and 34.5 pounds of processed marijuana, multiple firearms, and “18 totoaba fish bladders, a delicacy in Asia harvested illegally from an endangered species.”  They also, according to The Times, seized documents indicating “the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins.”

Why This Matters:  As the World Wildlife Fund reports, around 100 million sharks may be killed annually for their fins and many are sold on the black market. Illegal wildlife trafficking is growing because international criminal networks are able to exploit weaknesses and gaps in international law enforcement.  The same criminals who sell illegal shark fins also sell illegal drugs and weapons, launder money, and traffic in humans.  The network in this case involved individuals from the U.S., Hong Kong, Mexico, and Canada.  International wildlife crime is a global problem and it will require a concerted and coordinated global effort and stronger domestic laws to end it.

Shark Fins Trade

Finning sharks — the practice of catching sharks and cutting off their fins and throwing the rest into the ocean — is illegal in many places but not everywhere.  But it is illegal in many places, and even where it is legal, there are strict rules around the practice.  For example, in the U.S. shark fishing is permitted as is the sale of legally caught shark fins, but the act of shark finning is banned. But some state laws in the U.S. ban the sale of shark fins.  So much of the shark fin trade is illegal because of lax enforcement of bans and other regulations on shark finning.

In this case, the illegal conspiracy began as much as 10 years ago.  The leader of the conspiracy ran a California company called Serendipity Business Solutions, that allegedly smuggled shark fins into the U.S. from Mexico and ultimately exported them to Hong Kong, according to the indictment. Under California law, it is illegal to sell, possess, trade, or distribute shark fins in the state.  To avoid this prohibition, the conspirators used a front company in Florida, where licensed dealers can legally possess, sell and ship certain shark fins, to hide the illegal shark fin business conducted through Serendipity Business Solutions.

At the news conference announcing the arrests, the federal prosecutor said that the “sting” operation, known as “Operation Apex” was “about much more than disrupting the despicable practice of hacking the fins off of sharks and leaving them to drown in the sea to create a bowl of soup…The investigation is about dismantling a major conspiracy aimed at profiting from illegally traded wildlife and illegally grown marijuana, hiding the sources of those proceeds and using it to fuel an insatiable criminal enterprise.”

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