Importing Tropical Fish (Summary of U.S. rules)
- Randy Carey -
This article is a summary of my understanding of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife rules which cover the importing of tropical fish into the U.S. I am not a legal expert, so accept this information as my understanding of the rules, not as a legal explanation. I write as one who has followed the requirements and successfully obtained an importer's license.
The importing of live tropical fish into the United States is of concern to two federal agencies: U.S. Customs, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife. U.S. Customs is concerned with any item of value which is being shipped into the U.S. Each item (or the total of a shipment) must have a dollar value declared. This agency has a list of various things which are subject to duties (taxes). Live tropical fish are not--at least not in the quantities by which I have imported them. However, I have had to pay a $9.00 processing fee and fill out a couple of forms in order to clear Customs.
The second agency, U. S. Fish & Wildlife, will demand more (in dollars and in time) from the hobbyist who wants to import fish. Technically, if an individual will be bringing in eight or more wild-caught fish (not species), the shipment will be subject to an inspection with an inspection fee. Actually, the agency does not have to physically inspect the shipment, but they must clear it in writing. The importer must pay the fee regardless. If any of the fish are to be sold, bartered, or traded (i.e., not for the sole personal use of the person importing them), then that person must obtain an importer's license.
If the fish are not being inspected by one of about thirteen designated ports of entry, then the importer must apply for permission to use a nondesignated ports of entry. Not all airports qualify as a designated or non-designated port of entry.
The Fish & Wildlife regulations presented here apply to wild-caught fish. Since I am not dealing with importing captive bred fish, I did not have my Fish & Wildlife officer investigate those rules. However, she did indicate that she thought the regulations were more lenient with captive bred specimens.
Can I import live tropical fish to my nearby airport?
If your airport is either a designated or a non-designated port of entry, you may import and have your shipment inspected through your airport. Designated ports of entries include New York, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Los Angelos, et.al. These are cities with major international flights. My home airport in Minneapolis/St. Paul is a non-desigated port of entry. Obviously, it sees a lot of Canadian goods coming through it, but it is seldom the primary port for other countries. Kansas City and Milwaukee are not considered ports of entry, despite their size. However, you can still have fish sent to your airport as long as they are scheduled to be inspected at a U.S. port of entry on the way to your airport.
What if I have to use a non-designate port of entry?
You must apply for a permit to use a non-designated port of entry for the purpose of importing wildlife. The application will ask you to make a case for at least one of three acceptable reasons:  Importing through a designated port will incur hardship to the animals.  It will incur hardship to the importer.  The importing is for scientific purposes.
Being that I live eight hours from the nearest designated port (Chicago), I qualified under the first two points: My fish would be stressed by having to travel an additional eight hours by car. Furthermore, I would half to take off at least a day from work and travel over 700 miles round trip, thus incurring loss in pay and expense in excessive driving. The cost of this permit is $25. The applicant can request the permit to cover the next 2 years. So in effect, the cost is $12.50 per year.
What are the requirements for obtaining an importers license?
Anyone can apply. You will be asked general questions: Where do you plan to keep/warehouse the imported goods? Who will be the person responsible? Where will the records be kept and who will be responsible for them?
I am assuming that my name is now flagged by someone (FBI, IRS, ?). I have nothing to hide, and I really want those rare species. So if I'm now being watched, so be it. The cost of the license is $50. It is good for one year (from the date of issue). The same application form is used for requesting either an importers license or for requesting permission to use a designated port. The only difference is that a couple of boxes at the top must be checked differently to specify what request the applicant is making. A different copy of the form must be used for each request.
What about inspections?
Any shipment is subject to the possibility of an inspectioin by a law enforcement officer from U.S. Fish & Wildlife.However, usually not every shipment will be inspected. The threat of an inspection is to keep imports on the up and up. You are required to contact the inspector at least 48 hours before the shipment is to arrive.
When my fish were inspected, the officer had a dog to sniff for illegal substances. She opened the boxes, pulled out selected bags, and raised them for a quick look. I'm sure it quickly became quite obvious that my small fish were just as I declared: harmless tropical fish for home aquarium use. Regardless of whether an inspection is conducted or not, the importer must pay the inspection fee. This may seem unfair, but imagine the problems which would occur if an importer randomly pays for inspections. An importer could complain that he is being charged more often than his competitor, or he can try to persuade the inspector to forego inspections. I understand the reasoning behind the rule that everyone pays regardless--though I'd rather not have to pay.
The inspection fee is $55 at designated ports of entry and an addition $40 is charged for inspections at non-designated ports of entry. That means I pay $95 per shipment (regardless of the shipments size). The reason for the extra charge is that non-designated ports are understaffed for this sort of thing. In Minnesota, only one officer is in charge of these inspections! Again, I understand, but I'd prefer not to have to pay the extra charge.
How do I get the application forms and apply?
You can call your local U.S. Fish & Wildlife agency and ask for the name and number of the proper person. From that person you will explain what you want to do and that you'd like the proper paperwork. You can also check out the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's web site. This site lists the various regions (also shown on this map). You will want to contact the main office in your region. I am under the understanding that each region might interpret the rules just a little differently. So just tell them what you would like to do and ask them what they want from you. The applications should be mailed to you. Once you fill it out, you need to return it with a check for the application fee(s). I think it took the typical 6 weeks for my license to come in the mail.
What steps can I expect when I actually import?
 Call the U.S. Fish & Wildlife agent at least 48 hours in advance of the shipment's scheduled arrival. Set an appointment.
 If the shipper does not fill out the species list form, get some of these forms from your U.S. Customs office. Fill them out in advance. You won't want to be doing it while your box of fish waits on the dock. You will be asked the scientific names, country of initial origin, and quantity for each species in the shipment.
 Go to the cargo shipper when the shipment arrives. I learned that they won't call you and you may even have to push to get them to look for your box(es). They will give you the shipping papers. My shipper attaches the species list form to the box, so I have to specify that I want them to find those papers and give them to me with the other papers.
 This is when the agent from U.S. Fish & Wildlife should be at the cargo site inspecting your shipment. The Fish & Wildlife officer will want to see and process some of the papers. When my agent is done, I hand her a check for the inspection fee (ouch!), and she hands me some papers stamped that she approved the shipment.
 While your box waits at the dock, take all of your paperwork to U.S. Customs. Realize that it is apt to be in a different building and possibly a ways away. You should investigate and learn where the office is before you import. Remember, your box of live fish will be waiting all of the time that you will be looking for Customs. For me, the office is only two blocks down the street.
Customs will have a few forms for you to fill out. I didn't find them very intuitive, so I have someone help me each time. By helping, I have to pay $9.00 instead or $4.50, but it's worth avoiding the confusion, frustration, and need of having to do it all over. Of course, I'm not saying that the line or the help is fast. I'm not sure if I ever got out in less than a half hour. Customs will not stamp your papers unless you have approval from U.S. Fish & Wildlife. So make sure you have the inspection done first.
 With a pile of stamped papers in hand, return to the cargo carrier and present them. They seem to know what they need before they can legally turn over your box(es). Once they see I've cleared U.S. Fish and U.S. Customs, they charge me for the shipping. Then they put the way bill (the shipping document) in a stack representing shipments to be processed (retrieved by a warehouse worker). By now, once they bring the boxes to me, they are mine.
 You must keep your paperwork on file.
I've tried to answer the main questions. I'm sure I'm missing a few of the finer details. But the agencies will realize that you need help on your first few times. They aren't there to harrass you, just keep the movement of imported goods in line. Be friendly to the agents. They have no reason to mistrust a common citizen pursuing a hobby interest.
Importing is not for the most aquarists, but if you are serious about getting rarer species and can find a shipper who is willing to ship to you, you can end up with some great "catches." You may have to pay in time and dollars, but if you are a serious fishkeeper, you already are putting in time and dollars. The expense of importing can be prohibitive, but if you tie in with other aquarists (local aquarium society) or even a store, then you may be able to share the extra cost and justify a shipment. Importing provides a way for me to enjoy my hobby more than before. To me it's worth the cost.
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