In a recent development, two individuals named Zunyu Zhao and Xionwei Xiao have pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of conspiracy and illegal importation of sea cucumbers. These sea cucumber smugglers were involved in trafficking Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumbers, a protected species, without the required permits and documentation. The smuggling operation lasted from May 9, 2017, to February 10, 2019, with multiple attempts to illegally import these sea cucumbers. Zhao and Xiao were arrested in June 2023, and a sealed indictment was issued against both of them. The defendants have agreed to pay restitution to the Mexican governmental entity responsible for environmental protection. The sentencing hearings for both individuals are scheduled for September and November 2023. This case highlights the commitment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in upholding marine biodiversity and conservation, emphasizing the consequences of poaching protected species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also reaffirms its dedication to combating wildlife trafficking and smuggling worldwide.
Sea Cucumber Smugglers Plead Guilty to Illegal Trafficking in Wildlife
Summary of the Case
Zunyu Zhao and Xionwei Xiao recently pleaded guilty to charges related to the illegal trafficking of sea cucumbers. They were indicted for conspiracy and illegal importation of sea cucumbers, specifically the Isostichopus Fuscus species protected under Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The smuggling attempts took place at the Calexico Port of Entry. The indictment and plea agreement revealed that the defendants had engaged in illegal activities from May 2017 to February 2019, importing sea cucumbers without proper permits and documentation. The value of the sea cucumbers trafficked during the conspiracy is estimated at $10,222.50. As part of the plea agreement, the defendants will pay restitution to the Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Ambiente, the Mexican governmental entity responsible for environmental protection.
This case highlights the importance of marine biodiversity and conservation. Poaching and illegal trafficking of protected species, such as sea cucumbers, have serious criminal consequences. Efforts to investigate and combat wildlife trafficking have been ongoing, aiming to protect endangered species and preserve the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. Commercial trafficking and smuggling of wildlife is a significant environmental issue that requires the collaboration of law enforcement agencies, government entities, and international organizations to address.
Indictment and Arrest
Zhao and Xiao were indicted by a Grand Jury on May 23, 2023. Shortly after the indictment, Xiao was arrested at the U.S. border on June 9, 2023, and Zhao was arrested four days later. The arrests were made as part of the ongoing investigation into their illegal sea cucumber smuggling activities. The evidence presented in the indictment and the subsequent arrests confirmed their involvement in the unlawful importation of sea cucumbers.
Plea Agreement and Value of Sea Cucumbers
As part of the plea agreement, Zhao and Xiao agreed to plead guilty to the charges brought against them. The terms of the agreement included determining the fair market value of the Isostichopus Fuscus sea cucumbers. The parties involved agreed that the fair market value of these sea cucumbers is $435 per kilogram. With this valuation, the total value of the sea cucumbers trafficked during the conspiracy was calculated to be $10,222.50. Additionally, the defendants agreed to pay restitution to the Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Ambiente.
Prosecution and Sentencing
The prosecution of this case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carl Brooker and Melanie Pierson. Xionwei Xiao is scheduled to be sentenced on September 29, 2023, at 10:30 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Todd W. Robinson. Zunyu Zhao is scheduled to be sentenced on November 11, 2023, at 9:30 a.m., also before Judge Robinson. These sentencing dates will determine the penalties imposed on the defendants for their involvement in the illegal trafficking of sea cucumbers.
Statement from the United States Attorney
Acting United States Attorney Andrew R. Haden expressed the office’s commitment to marine biodiversity and conservation. He emphasized that the consequences for poaching protected species are severe and that his office is dedicated to diligent investigation and prosecution of such crimes. This statement reaffirms the government’s determination to protect endangered species and preserve the integrity of marine ecosystems.
Statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement prioritizes the investigation and enforcement of unlawful wildlife trafficking and smuggling. The agency recognizes the global impact of these crimes and is actively involved in international and domestic efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This statement highlights the agency’s commitment to protecting endangered species and highlights the collaborative efforts necessary to address this issue effectively.
The defendants in this case are Zunyu Zhao and Xionwei Xiao. Zhao is also known as Kathy Zhao, and Xiao is also known as Luis Xiao. Their ages are 51 and 52, respectively. Zhao is from Calexico, California, while Xiao is from Mexicali, Mexico.
Charges and Penalties
The defendants were charged with conspiracy and illegal importation of sea cucumbers. The maximum penalties for these charges are as follows: conspiracy carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while illegal importation contrary to law carries a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The sentencing hearings will determine the specific penalties imposed on each defendant based on the evidence presented and the circumstances of the case.
For media inquiries and further information about this case, please contact the Media Relations Director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They can be reached at (619) 546-9726 or via email at Kelly.Thornton@usdoj.gov.