It’s one of the most grueling hunts in the seafood industry.

Every year, up to 73 million shark fins are slashed from the backs of the majestic sea predators, and their bleeding bodies are sometimes dumped back into the ocean, where they suffocate or die of blood loss.

While the barbaric practice is driven by China, where shark fin soup is a status symbol for the wealthy and powerful, America’s seafood industry is not immune.

A rash of recent criminal indictments demonstrates how US companies, taking advantage of a patchwork of federal and state laws, are supplying a market for shark fins that activists say is as heinous as the now-illegal trade in elephant ivory.

A complaint quietly filed last month in Miami federal court accused Elite Sky International, a Florida Keys-based exporter, of falsely labeling 5,666 pounds of China-bound shark fins as live Florida spiny lobsters. According to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, another company, south Florida-based Aifa Seafood, is also under criminal investigation for similar violations. The company is run by a Chinese-American woman who pleaded guilty in 2016 to illegally shipping more than a half-ton of live Florida lobsters to her native China.

The increased scrutiny from law enforcement comes as Congress debates a federal ban on shark fins, which would make even foreign-caught fins illegal to import or export. Every year, American wildlife inspectors seize thousands of shark fins while in transit to Asia for failing to declare the shipments.

While not all sharks are killed solely for their fins, none of the other shark parts harvested in the United States and elsewhere, such as meat, jaws, or skin, can compete in terms of value with fins. A single pound of shark fins can fetch hundreds of dollars depending on the type of shark, making it one of the most expensive seafood products by weight anywhere.

Since 2000, it has been illegal to cut shark fins and discard shark bodies back into the ocean under federal law. Individual states, on the other hand, have broad discretion in deciding whether or not businesses can harvest fins from dead sharks at a dock or import them from abroad.

The legislation currently being debated in Congress would impose a near-total ban on fin trade, similar to the action taken by Canada in 2019. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the legislation in 2017, and it has majority support in both the House and Senate.

Elite, which has hired lobbyists to urge Congress to vote against the proposed ban, is among those opposed to it, according to lobbying records.

It is unknown where Elite got its fins. However, the company was also accused in the criminal complaint of obtaining lobster from Nicaragua and Belize that it falsely claimed was caught in Florida. The company, which was affiliated with a Chinese-American seafood exporter based in New York City, was charged with violating the Lacey Act, a century-old statute that makes submitting false paperwork for any wildlife shipped overseas a crime.

Overfishing has resulted in a 71% decline in shark species since the 1970s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Swiss-based organization that monitors wildlife populations, estimates that more than a third of the world’s 500-plus shark species are on the verge of extinction.

According to Webber, despite industry complaints about excessive regulations, the United States is far from a model of sustainable shark management. She cited a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finding that less than 23% of the 66 shark stocks in US waters are safe from overfishing. The status of more than half of shark stocks isn’t even known.

However, federal prosecutors claim that in 2013, he reconnected with associates of his former co-conspirators, in violation of the terms of his probation. He was arrested in 2020 on mail and wire fraud conspiracy charges as part of Operation Apex, a five-year investigation that targeted a dozen people who allegedly profited from drug trafficking. Prosecutors claim Harrison’s Florida-based Phoenix Fisheries was a “shell company” for people in California, where owning fins is illegal since 2011.