Live Seafood Smuggling on the Rise among Chinese Immigrants

Live razor fish being promoted on WeChat. (Screen shot via World Journal)

Smuggling live seafood via commercial airlines has become a trend among Chinese immigrants traveling between China and the U.S. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has recently increased random inspections of Chinese travelers, and confiscated more than 800 pounds of illegally trafficked seafood so far.

Chinese who are familiar with the trend said many passengers are paid to bring seafood in their luggage for immigrants here who miss the flavor of food from their hometowns.

Xiao Cheng, who conducts e-commerce via WeChat groups and other online business websites, said smuggling seafood has become popular in the past two or three years. The insatiable appetite for special seafood found only in the waters of their hometowns among immigrants from Fujian, Zhejiang, Canton as well as other places in China has helped form an underground market. Some demands can even be met by express delivery overnight.

Cheng said travelers often put the seafood in styrofoam boxes to allow air to seep in and keep the shellfish alive over the long flight. Different items require different handling. For example, razor fish have to be packaged with sandy mud still on them to guarantee they are alive after arriving in the U.S.

Some people who are familiar with the business said the prices for seafood smuggled in this way could be several times or even more than a dozen times higher than the original prices in China. And the items can be sold to customers quickly via WeChat. For example, Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs can be sold for at least $25 each in New York via WeChat, and many customers even spend $300 to $400 to buy six or eight crabs in one order. The business is especially robust during holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Lunar New Year.

Of course the smugglers face the risk of being spotted by the authorities, losing the products and getting fined. But people in this business said the profits are high enough to make it worth taking the risk, and the loss would be added to the cost of doing business and transferred to customers eventually. What’s more, customs checks are selective, not a mandate. Even if one or two piece of luggage are stopped for inspection, others can still go through without any hurdles. Sometimes, the passenger has to pay extra fees for excess weight. But even that, they said, is acceptable because it’s such a lucrative business and still profitable after that.

Min Tao, an immigrant from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, has purchased oysters from her hometown via WeChat many times. She said she has been in the U.S. for many years and couldn’t go back to visit because of her lack of immigration status. But “I crazily miss the seafood from home,” she said. She said the oysters from her hometown are different from oysters in the U.S. “They are smaller and more tasty. They only grow on the coast of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces,” said Tao.

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