The investigation bears all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster: an undercover sting, mobile surveillance teams, an international smuggling operation and, most importantly, a catchy name – Operation Serpent.
It also contains one heck of a fish story involving a freakish predator with near-mythological powers.
Bearing razor teeth, an insatiable appetite for aquatic vegetation and other fish and an ability to slither up to half a kilometre over land, the snakehead fish has become the stuff of urban legend, inciting mild panic seven years ago in New York, when conservation officials caught five in a brackish Queens lake, one measuring more than two feet long.
The fearsome fish hails from Asia, where many consider it a culinary delicacy. North American importers have found a healthy market for the fish among the Asian diaspora here, as well as fish collectors who enjoy watching aquarium-bound snakeheads devour everything in their paths, according to investigators. That aggressive disposition has also earned it invasive species designation throughout North America, where it has no known predators.
That incident, along with the creature's knack for destroying habitat, fed a zeal to root out and destroy the so-called monster fish in the United States. Last year, U.S. authorities began gazing to the porous northern border in the battle against the snakehead and, more specifically, an unassuming fish store in Markham's Pacific Mall.
On Wednesday, authorities in Canada and the United States officially closed their case against Lucky Aquarium after the company and employee Jimmy Ip pleaded guilty to importing and selling snakehead fish – banned in both Ontario and the United States – despite his lawyer's reservations. "There was no real threat to the public," attorney Darren Sederhoff said. "I thought that was exaggerated. The pictures, with the teeth and all that, I know, they can look scary, but the majority of snakehead fish are no threat to our ecosystems."
The punishment amounts to more than $90,000 in fines and 120 days in jail.
According to documents and agents involved in the investigation, Operation Serpent began in March of last year, when agents traced online ads for snakehead fish to Lucky Aquarium.
Taking cues from hard-drug investigations, the team of Canadian and U.S. investigators first had to set up a confidence buy.
An undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent posing as a customer began recording regular conversations with Mr. Ip, and eventually ordered 26 giant red snakehead fish to be sent to a Buffalo address. Apparently aware of the illicit nature of the transaction, Mr. Ip advised the agent how to avoid detection at the border and said he would courier the shipment using "a fake name and fake address on the packaging," Bob Baxter, an operations manager with Environment Canada's wildlife enforcement division and who was closely involved in the investigation, said in an interview. "That built a confidence between Mr. Ip and our undercover operator so that a second transaction could be entered into."
For months, Canadian authorities gathered information on Mr. Ip, employing mobile surveillance teams to observe where he lived, where he did business and if he was picking up shipments at the airport. They even used telephone warrants to determine who he was talking to.
The investigative coup came in December, 2011. The U.S. agent travelled to Markham to buy 155 more snakehead fish, a potentially tricky transaction that required Environment Canada to supply a team to be on standby in case the covert operator's safety was endangered. When the deal was done – $233 apiece for fish that were in Thailand one day and Pearson International Airport the next – officials in both countries knew they had enough evidence to take down Mr. Ip and his employer.
Environment Canada officials worked closely with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the New York Attorney-General's office to create a plea bargain for Mr. Ip. He pleaded guilty on Friday. According to his lawyer, Mr. Ip has already paid fines totalling more than $90,000 in both countries and he will serve his two 60-day jail sentences on weekends.
"He's accepted responsibility, he's paid up, he'll do a bit of a jail sentence and that's the end of it," said Mr. Sederhoff, who questioned why the agencies involved sent out several self-congratulatory press releases about the case. "A big win for the governments? I don't know. They're trying to toot their own horn here. You know, we've caught the big fish. Let me know when the parade is."