A New York restaurant owner pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle rare and restricted seafood into the country from Mexico, according to the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of California.
In court Friday, Alan Ren, 48, admitted to conspiring with a Taiwanese citizen, Wei Wei Wang, 37, to covertly smuggle 250 of pounds of exotic seafood, secretly stashed in three suitcases and a black plastic bag.
He was charged with conspiracy, smuggling/importation contrary to law and unlawful importation of wildlife.
According to the arraignment, Ren said that he employed Wang to handle the finances at his seafood business. With Wang in his car, Ren drove into the U.S. with approximately 83 pounds of frozen black abalone, also known as Haliotis cracherodii, and 172 pounds of sea cucumber, also known as Isostichopus fuscus.
The black abalone is an endangered species, and the sea cucumber is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species, stated the U.S. Attorney's office. Ren acknowledged that he planned to use the abalone and sea cucumbers for commercial business, as he owns two Chinese restaurants.
Ren admitted that they didn't have any permits to export sea cucumber or abalone from Mexico or to import the restricted seafood into the U.S. He agreed that he should have known that harvesting the seafood was also illegal in Mexico.
Several months after smuggling the seafood, Ren falsely claimed two fake receipts from a vendor in Ensenada were the invoices for the sea cucumber and abalone, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Ren agreed to pay $16,600 in restitution to the Mexican government for the illegally exported seafood. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to 30 years in prison and combined fines up to $750,000.
Black abalone reside off California and Baja California. The harvest of abalone is illegal in California, after the population was reduced 80 percent by a wasting disease called Withering Syndrome in the mid 1980's.
Abalones reach reproductive maturity between three and seven years of age but they can live up to 25 or even 75 years, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Sea cucumbers are found in the Eastern Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Ecuador. The marine animals are guarded under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species. A permit is required to import them into the U.S.
Illegal harvesting has decimated sea cucumber populations in the Caribbean Sea off the Yucatan Peninsula. Rival gangs fight over control of the harvest, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.