Photo by Cliff [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Cliff [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A former West Hills resident who attempted to export a protected South American air-breathing fish species into Canada from the United States without the proper permits was sentenced Wednesday to a year in federal prison.

The defendant’s attorney downplayed the importance of the protected species, calling it “kind of a garbage fish.” But the attorney’s claims that the fish is no “bald eagle” were apparently ignored in the judge’s sentencing decision.

Isaac Zimerman, a 66-year-old U.S. citizen, apologized to the court, saying he was “very sorry. I beg (you) to allow me to remain free.”     U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II wasn’t swayed, and granted the government’s sentencing request for a year behind bars, which included an enhancement for fleeing prosecution after Zimerman was charged seven years ago.

The judge ordered Zimerman into federal custody immediately after the sentence was imposed, as shocked family members looked on.

Defense attorney Mark Werksman attempted to object, but was cut off by Wright, who snapped, “Is there something unclear about what I just said?”

Zimerman was extradited from Mexico last September to face charges contained in a 13-count indictment charging him with running an international fish trafficking operation.

He pleaded guilty in November to a single felony charge related to a 2008 attempt to illegally export two Arapaima gigas, a freshwater fish which can sometimes grow to 15 feet in length and has been known to leap from the water to catch low-flying birds.

Zimerman “was a sophisticated fish trafficker who built a successful business based on the illegal possession and sale of wildlife,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana M. Kwok wrote in pre-sentencing papers.

“The fact that he fled to Mexico was his choice,” she said today.     In his plea agreement, Zimerman admitted possessing the large South American freshwater fish, which were advertised for sale and shipped outside of California.

The indictment also contained 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 Peru while on pre-trial release.

Zimerman was apparently selling baby fish at about 15 inches in length for $180 each and shipping them overnight to their destinations in plastic bags with moisture, without the necessary documentation.

Werksman attempted to downplay the charge, which he described as a “very technical” offense that required the study of “thousands of pages of federal regulations” to discover that the sale and export of the Arapaima gigas without federal paperwork was illegal.

The defense attorney described the species as “kind of a garbage fish.”

“We’re not talking about the bald eagle,” Werksman told the judge.

The defendant was initially charged in 2009, along with his company and his wife. Leonor Zimerman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense in 2010, and her husband fled the United States that same year after prosecutors filed additional charges alleging that he continued to illegally export fish while on bond.

Special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tracked Zimerman’s movements through Europe, to Israel and eventually to Mexico.

Zimerman was arrested a year ago near Metepec, Mexico, at the conclusion of a four-year manhunt. During his flight to avoid prosecution, Zimerman changed his appearance and took other steps to avoid detection and arrest, authorities said.

The Mexican government permitted Zimerman to be extradited to the United States on two of the felony charges related to the illegal exportation of Arapaima gigas.

His wife, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of illegal fish trafficking, was sentenced in January 2011 to 21 months of probation and ordered to pay a $1,500 fine.

Arapaima gigas are known as fast growers and powerful swimmers that will sometimes jump out of the water to snatch prey.

In aquariums, they seldom reach over 2 feet, but in the wild, they often grow to about 6 1/2 feet long, with the largest specimen reported to have reached almost 15 feet in length.

Because of their large size and appetite for other fish, they are not considered a good choice as a home pet and need to be housed in a very large aquarium or pond.

—City News Service

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