MIAMI (AP) — It's one of the seafood industry's most gruesome hunts.
Every year, the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are sliced from the backs of the majestic sea predators, their bleeding bodies sometimes dumped back into the ocean where they are left to suffocate or die of blood loss.
But while the barbaric practice is driven by China, where shark fin soup is a symbol of status for the rich and powerful, America's seafood industry isn't immune from the trade.
A spate of recent criminal indictments highlights how U.S. companies, taking advantage of a patchwork of federal and state laws, are supplying a market for fins that activists say is as reprehensible as the now-illegal trade in elephant ivory once was.
A complaint quietly filed last month in Miami federal court accused an exporter based in the Florida Keys, Elite Sky International, of falsely labeling some 5,666 pounds of China-bound shark fins as live Florida spiny lobsters. Another company, south Florida-based Aifa Seafood, is also under criminal investigation for similar violations, according to two people on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing probe. The company is managed by a Chinese-American woman who in 2016 pleaded guilty to shipping more than a half-ton of live Florida lobsters to her native China without a license.
The heightened scrutiny from law enforcement comes as Congress debates a federal ban on shark fins — making it illegal to import or export even foreign-caught fins. Every year, American wildlife inspectors seize thousands of shark fins while in transit to Asia for failing to declare the shipments.