Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Delicacy on Chinatown Plates, but a Killer in Water By Liz ROBBINS and Jeffrey E. SINGER

 The walls in the basement of a building in Brooklyn’s Chinatown were whitewashed, and boxes of cleaning supplies were stacked on the red tile floor. But beneath the disinfectant smell, the unmistakable odor of fish lingered as the flimsiest calling card of a former tenant.

                                               New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
 The snakehead fish is prized for its healing properties in China, but has been illegal to import to the United States since 2002.

 That tenant, Yong Hao Wu, sold fish until October for his Howei Trading Company out of this shop on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park. Mr. Wu is now out of business and under arrest because the authorities have accused him of illegally importing thousands of live snakehead fish.
 In China, the snakehead is a sweet, meaty staple harvested in farms, and when boiled into soup, it is reputed to possess remarkable healing properties. But once outside of its natural river habitats in China, Korea and Russia, it is a rapidly reproducing predator with such a voracious appetite it can wipe out entire schools of fish and destroy an ecosystem.
 That the snakehead has been illegal to import into the United States since 2002 when it was found in a pond in Maryland has not diminished its demand — and perhaps has only fueled it. The fish, which has also been illegal to possess in New York State, has been sold in other markets like Boston and is also available through the Internet, officials with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said.
 On Thursday, the authorities caught one of the fishmongers.
 Officials arrested Mr. Wu, 43, after an investigation that followed the seizure of 353 live snakeheads on the eve of the 2010 Chinese New Year, at Kennedy International Airport. Surveillance cameras led them to Howei Trading company in Sunset Park, where officials found a tank filled with 82 more snakeheads.
 Mr. Wu was arraigned on Thursday night, charged on felony commercialization of wildlife and importing fish dangerous to indigenous fish populations. If convicted, he faces up to four years in prison.
 Mr. Wu was released on his own recognizance, a spokesman for the Queens district attorney said, and his next court date is May 13.
 Mr. Wu’s lawyer, Melody Glover, did not return messages.
 The authorities said Mr. Wu had declared 3,889 imports as “Chinese black sleeper fish,” but he later admitted that they were, in fact, snakeheads. If the freshwater fish escapes its tanks, or is intentionally released, it can slither to water on land for three days. It has been found in rivers and lakes across the country.
 But while the authorities and Chinese residents say there is an underground market for live snakeheads, a quest on Friday to find the fish in Brooklyn was fruitless and infused with a whiff of mystery.
 “The flavor is absolutely the best,” insisted a 60-year-old man who gave his name as Zhu. He was traveling on a private bus from the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, to Sunset Park. “I’ve never tried it in the U.S., but it’s common and abundant in China. I’ve made it.”
 The snakehead was the talk of Chinatown since all the Chinese-language newspapers had articles about Mr. Wu’s arrest, and even featured photos of the fish’s razor-sharp teeth.
 Many shoppers and store owners nodded that they knew all about the snakehead, but did not want to talk about it. Some said they had not seen it in Chinatown for a long time, years even.
 As skittish as people were in talking about the fish, they would speak even less about Mr. Wu.
 Records show that he had most likely lived in New York since 1987, and had filed for bankruptcy in 1997. He had worked in food- and fish-related businesses in the New York area. His address listed by the authorities was a housing project in Coney Island.
 His former commercial landlord, Mui Tang, 60, said she kicked him out last October because he did not pay rent. The shop is now a pharmacy that has not yet opened.
 Some well-meaning residents suggested several restaurants that might be known to sell the banned fish. The trail led to one restaurant on Eighth Avenue that had tanks inside the front window. When asked about the fish, which goes by various names within the Chinese dialects, the waitress nodded that they had it.
 A soup made from the fish, which was not listed on the menu, would have cost $36, she said.
 She took a net and snared a slippery creature, flopping in a pail, and said a final decision had to be made within minutes or it would die. This was not a snakehead, as Joshua Newhard of the Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed when sent a picture.
 It is traditionally prepared as “one fish, two ways”: stir-fry the body and cook the head, tail and bone for soup.
 One fish, two ways. A delicacy in China, a killer in the United States.


Simon & Schuster

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