More than $17 million in illegally harvested sea cucumbers traded out of San Diego, indictment says

An investigation into wildlife crime has led to the federal indictment of a father-son duo who federal prosecutors say smuggled illegally harvested sea cucumbers worth more than $17 million into San Diego and then sold them to Asian markets.

The U.S. attorney’s office filed charges Wednesday against David Mayorquin and his father, Ramon Torres Mayorquin, accusing them of conspiracy, false labeling and unlawful importation of wildlife. The men co-own the Arizona-based company Blessing Seafood.

The prosecution is the latest in ongoing efforts to crack down on the lucrative trade of sea cucumbers. The sausage-shaped marine animals are prized by some Asian communities as a culinary delicacy and folk-medicine ingredient.

Depending on the species, sea cucumbers can go for as much as $300 a pound in China and Hong Kong, with prices on the rise, according to authorities.

“Sea cucumbers are taking up quite a bit of our time down at the border,” said Erin Dean, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southern California region.

“It’s a high-valued commodity that’s being smuggled in small quantities across the border … consolidated here in the U.S. and then, we believe, being shipped out to Asia,” she said.

Buying and selling sea cucumbers can be a legitimate business if people have the proper permits and operate in season. The Mayorquin family had a permit to do just that, but federal authorities said they also operated outside of the law.

Between 2010 and 2012, the family knowingly agreed to purchase about $13 million worth of illicitly harvested sea cucumbers from poachers operating off the Yucatan Peninsula, according to the indictment. They then imported the product and sold it to Asian markets for about $17.5 million, the indictment said.

According to federal prosecutors, Ramon Torres Mayorquin would receive the shipments in Tijuana and then smuggle them across the Otay Mesa Port of Entry into San Diego. David Mayorquin organized the sales to China and other locations.

To hide their trail, prosecutors said, the men routinely falsified documents and even worked with conspirators to bribe Mexican officials. In one such case, according to the indictment, they paid at least $32,000.

The authorities substantiated their claims with emails they obtained that purportedly show correspondence between the Mayorquin family and the alleged poachers.

In recent years, scientists and environmental groups have raised concerns about the effect of illegal fishing on sea cucumber populations.

“We have over-fished and created a risk of extinction for many species [of sea cucumbers],” said Octavio Aburto, a marine ecologist with UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “There’s a lot of poaching, and prices are going up.”

Smuggling of sea cucumbers is one of the most high-profile wildlife crimes in Southern California, next to the illegal trade of totoaba fish bladders, according to Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The dried fish bladders are also sold to Asian markets, sometimes for as much as $30,000 apiece, according to a new report from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Elephant Action League.

joshua.smith@sduniontribune.com

Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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