Law enforcement agents documented the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins, officials said.
Shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in some countries, has long fueled demand for illegally harvested fins. But federal authorities in Georgia announced this week that they had dismantled at least one source for the ingredient: a multimillion-dollar organization they described as an international money laundering, drug trafficking and illegal wildlife trade ring.
A dozen people, including Terry Xing Zhao Wu, 45, of Burlingame, Calif., and two businesses on opposite ends of the country face multiple charges, including fraud and money laundering, for their roles in what the authorities called the “Wu transnational criminal organization,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia said in a statement on Thursday.
“United with our partner agencies, we have shut down an operation that fed a seemingly insatiable overseas appetite for illegally traded wildlife, and seized ill-gotten assets derived from that despicable criminal enterprise,” Bobby L. Christine, the U.S. attorney for the district, said in the statement.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Christine said that 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 fuel an insatiable criminal enterprise,” he said.
The authorities seized nearly $8 million in cash, diamonds and precious metals during the arrests and searches of homes and workplaces of the dozen people charged, prosecutors said.
Roughly 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,” were also confiscated. Law enforcement agents also “documented the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins,” according to officials.
In their statement, prosecutors said that “certain species of sharks are protected wildlife under federal and state law to ensure their continued sustainability.”
As of Friday night, no lawyers were listed in court records for Mr. Wu or any of the other defendants.
In the 37-page indictment, prosecutors said the organization, which included people across the United States as well as in Hong Kong, Mexico and Canada, was involved in wildlife trafficking, shark finning, drug trafficking and money laundering. Prosecutors said they thought the conspiracy began as early as 2010.
Mr. Wu is accused of running Serendipity Business Solutions, a California company that smuggled shark fins from Mexico and ultimately exported them to Hong Kong, according to the indictment. It is illegal to sell, possess, trade or distribute shark fins in or from California.
Prosecutors said Mr. Wu and his 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.
Shark fin soup, which is common at wedding banquets or other celebrations in some Asian countries, is said to have medicinal or aphrodisiac qualities. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “the latest research suggests that around 100 million sharks may be killed annually, often targeted for their fins.”
The federal investigation is continuing, Mr. Christine, the U.S. attorney, said at the news conference on Thursday.
In the statement from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Georgia, Robert Hammer, the acting special agent in charge who oversees Homeland Security Investigations operations in Georgia and Alabama, called it “a sad day when not even the sharks in the ocean are safe from the greed of criminal organizations.”