Home World California traffickers have pleaded guilty to smuggling $10,000 worth of endangered sea cucumbers from Mexico.

California traffickers have pleaded guilty to smuggling $10,000 worth of endangered sea cucumbers from Mexico.

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California traffickers have pleaded guilty to smuggling $10,000 worth of endangered sea cucumbers from Mexico.

  • Wildlife traders Zunyu Zhao and Xunwei Xiao pleaded guilty in California to illegally importing overfished and endangered brown sea cucumbers.
  • While it remains unclear where the marine animals are headed, the black market frequently sends sea cucumbers to China, where they are very popular for their medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.
  • The traffickers are due to be sentenced later this year for conspiracy to illegally import sea cucumbers worth $10,000 between 2017 and 2019.

Wildlife traders this week pleaded guilty in federal court in California to illegally importing endangered sea cucumbers — highly prized in China as food, medicine and a known aphrodisiac — from Mexico.

Zunyu Zhao and Xionwei Xiao were charged with conspiracy and illegal importation of brown sea cucumbers worth more than $10,000 from 2017 to 2019, and are scheduled to be sentenced in September and November, respectively.

Prosecutors did not say where the sea cucumbers were obtained in the ocean. But the defendants were allegedly found with smuggled bottom feeders while crossing from Mexico to the United States in Calexico. Zhao and Xiao agreed to pay compensation to the Mexican government’s Environmental Protection Agency. They can be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.

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Lawyers for Chow and Xiao did not respond to requests for comment.

After the sea cucumbers were seized at the border, investigators found text messages and photos sent between Zhao and Xiao regarding the transactions. Sea cucumbers are being kept as evidence by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“This office is committed to supporting and preserving the core pillars of marine biodiversity,” Acting US Attorney Andrew R. Haden said in a statement. “Criminals considering poaching protected species should know that this office will seriously investigate, prosecute thoroughly, and seek redress regardless of species.”

Sea cucumber

A man carries sea cucumbers in Los Angeles on December 30, 2005. Zunyu Zhao and Xunwei Xiao have pleaded guilty in California to illegally importing endangered brown sea cucumbers. (Sean Heller/Orange County Recording via AP)

Sea cucumbers are in the same family as sea stars and sea urchins and can grow up to 7 feet in length. The brown sea cucumber has a smooth body dotted with warts and can grow up to 2 feet in length.

Gordon Hendler, curator of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, said these animals act as a vacuum on the sea floor, scavenging molecules that become part of the ocean’s nutrient cycle.

The plaintiffs did not say where the option would go. But a thriving black market often brings it to China, where it is considered a delicacy. They are traditionally served dried or fresh and are often cooked with fish, vegetables, and traditional sauces. They are also used to treat joint pain, prevent cancer, and act as anti-inflammatory—medical uses that are sometimes validated by science. It is also considered an aphrodisiac.

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But the brown sea cucumber – Isotichopus fuscus – is overfished, which is why there are regulations on its harvest.

Harvesting sea cucumbers is permitted in the United States and many parts of the world, but only in limited quantities and during peak season. Defendants Chow and Xiao did not have the appropriate permits and documentation, according to Kelly Thornton, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s office.

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In 2017, a father-son partnership smuggled more than $17 million worth of sea cucumbers from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula into the United States and exported them to Asia. From 2015 to 2020, the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard made more than 500 arrests linked to the $2.84 million sea cucumber theft. In a pending case, a defendant illegally trafficked sea cucumbers with sea horses and the stomachs of tatatuba fish in Chula Vista, California, from 2016 to 2021.

“One of the highest priorities for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s office of law enforcement is investigating individuals involved in illegal commercial trafficking and smuggling of wildlife here and around the world,” said Service Agent Manisa Kong.

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