How Not to Smuggle a Human-Sized, Air-Breathing Fish Into Los Angeles

How do you secretly smuggle into California a bunch of Amazonian arapaimas, a smelly, extinction-threatened fish the size of a human?
How do you secretly smuggle into California a bunch of Amazonian arapaimas, a smelly, extinction-threatened fish the size of a human?
Sergio Ricardo de Oliveira, courtesy of Virginia Tech

An evil international criminal based in the quiet San Fernando Valley neighborhood of West Hills sent Interpol and U.S. federal agents tracking him around the globe, mockingly hid out in Mexico for years, finally got nabbed by "special agents" for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and today is expected to plead guilty before a Los Angeles judge.

Isaac Zimerman will go down in the history books as among the most slippery in his weird criminal subcategory. You've no doubt heard of the seedy world of “fish smugglers.”

Called a “piranha” smuggler a couple of years back by NBC News, Zimerman and his wife got into the really hard stuff, for which he faces 10 years in prison, by importing what City News Service calls the “world's largest freshwater fish, a South American species known as Arapaima.”

Now, this was an incredibly stupid thing for Isaac Zimerman to do, because Arapaima gigas, once as common around the Amazon as blades of grass, faces possible extinction and is officially protected. Scientists like Professor Leandro Castello at the Department of Fish and Wildlife at Virginia Tech are trying to understand the huge animal's behavior so it can be saved.

It turns out these animals, the size of a human, are actually air breathers and they like to come up for air near shore — a trait that turned them into sitting ducks.

The creepy part is, these fish are being treated like living trophies, a real catch for spoiled, wealthy Californians and other Americans keen to have an Arapaima in their gigantic aquariums.

How selfish is that?

Castello explains in an email, "The ornamental aquarium fish trade is important. All major aquariums have a couple [of arapaima] and all aquarists know about them and would like to have them. Years ago, if you Googled it, you could find baby arapaima for sale for $180 apiece."

He surmises that Zimerman may have smuggled these grand-daddies by exploiting the fact that they breathe air. "They can be kept in small water bags for long periods of time," Castello says. Zimerman probably took babies, which are just a few centimeters long but will grow to 20 inches in just three months. 

The price has skyrocketed for these illegally trafficked, fascinating creatures. Zimerman might as well have imported illicit and tragic elephant tusks, the way he tweaked his nose at big tracking agencies like Interpol and the feds at Fish & Wildlife, who pride themselves on getting their man.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife “special agents” in fact tracked Zimerman through Europe, Israel and Mexcio for four years after he was initially arrested but bolted, jumping bond and fleeing underground where, authorities say, he continued to illegally traffic in banned fish. Meanwhile, his wife, Leonor Catalina Zimerman, pleaded guilty in 2010 to a misdemeanor offense for helping him out.

On March 3, 2015, Zimerman was arrested near Metepec, Mexico, after years of eluding these authorities.

According to the U.S. Attorney's office:

Zimerman was charged in a 13-count indictment with using his company, the Hawthorne-based River Wonders LLC, to import piranhas and river stingrays into the United States. Zimerman allegedly possessed those fish in California, and then they were advertised for sale, sold to customers and shipped to states outside of California. The indictment also contains allegations that Zimerman engaged in additional criminal conduct related to the falsification of documents, obstruction of proceedings, false statements and smuggling of protected Arapaima gigas from the United States while on pre-trial release.


It was obviously a lot of work. Why not take on some equally demanding legal job that doesn't draw the attention of a global task of Men in Black, ruin your marriage and end with you in prison? Maybe when the judge sentences Zimerman today, as expected, he should shave off a few months in recognition of the man's low IQ.

Meanwhile, all is not lost for this creature big enough to occupy a car seat for commuting purposes in Los Angeles (not that Zimerman had figured out that angle).

Like Castello at Virginia Tech, a  lot of scientists are trying to understand its behavior so it can be saved. Some of the research focuses on how the fish migrates around a water system of the Amazon River region known as “ria lakes.”

But until we better understand this fantastic fish that roams fresh waters far south of North America and can breathe air like a human, saving it remains up in the air.


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