When an officer came back April 27, he noticed largemouth bass on sale for $12.99 a pound, and felony warrants were issued for Jin and another manager, Jinmiao Xia, under charges that are a rarity in Northern Virginia suburbs that are more Fresh Fields than fresh kill: unlawful sale of wildlife. The charges have since been reduced to misdemeanors.
Jin, 25, a Falls Church resident, said he was shocked when he learned a warrant for his arrest had been issued. He immigrated from China at age 12 and has been a manager at the Falls Church store for about four years.
He said he wasn’t the only one surprised.
“Some officer asked me what I did when I turned myself in. I told him I was arrested for selling fish,” Jin said. “The officer said, ‘You were arrested for what?’ ”
Virginia largely bans the sale of wildlife. There are exceptions for permitted activities such as stocking ponds with game fish and selling some animals — including crayfish and bullfrogs — for food. But court records say Great Wall did not have permits to sell those species.
The state defines wild animals as any creature that is not on a list of domestic animals, which include cows, chickens, guinea pigs, rats, llamas and a number of other species but not the eels and turtles sold by Great Wall.
Landers, the DGIF officer, said he could not recall another case of a grocery store being targeted in Northern Virginia, but he said it was not unheard of in the state. He said conservation officers regularly run undercover stings, going after people making illegal sales of everything from piranhas to bear gall bladders, which are used as medicine in some Asian cultures and can fetch $1,000 a piece.
“You really have to be a flagrant violator to rise to the level of us seeking charges,” Landers said.
Such fights over live animal markets, which cross sensitive fault lines involving culture, animal rights and conservation, have often grown heated.
In California, animal rights activists have long pushed for limits on live market vendors who sell turtles, frogs and other animals. In 2010, a handful of Asian American lawmakers blocked such a plan before a state commission, saying the foods have long been staples of Asian diets. An animal rights activist accused the legislators of playing the “race card.”
And after a baby goat that escaped a live animal market was found on a Brooklyn street, an animal rescue group blasted the markets, which largely cater to immigrant communities whose members like to eat meat from freshly slaughtered animals.
At the hearing in Fairfax County court Friday, the store managers will seek to have the charges against them dismissed. Jin said that since the bust, his customers regularly ask him why he is not selling eels, which are considered a delicacy in some countries, and soft-shell turtles, which are often served to women in China after they give birth and are believed to restore strength.
“They are really disappointed,” Jin said.