Importing tropical fish to the USA can be a challenging and rewarding experience. Unless you have a surplus of time and money, importing fish is a commercial-level enterprise.

It is more efficient to get shipments of lots of fish than it is to get a few for your new aquarium. If you are looking for a few species, it is easier to find them already in the country.

There is no one inclusive resource that lists the government agencies, laws, and steps you must go through to get that beautiful new species from elsewhere in the world to your fish store or wholesale operation.

This article is designed to give you a working knowledge of the process and specific resources to help you get all the information you need to import tropical fish into the USA.

How to Import Tropical Fish to the USA

Purchasing and arranging tropical fish imports from other parts of the world makes you, in the eyes of the US government, a commercial wildlife importer. You are responsible to both the US Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Customs Department with different regulations.

Each department has different rules and regulations for importing wildlife, and the burden is on you to ensure that you have all the permits and have paid all the fees to get the fish all the way from a seller to your aquariums.

  • Find a seller with the species you want
  • Ensure the health of the species
  • Please make sure they are legal to be sold from the country of origin
  • Please make sure they are legal to be sold into the USA
  • Arrange transport
  • Get government clearance
  • Bring the fish to your establishment

What gets tricky is that the US Department of Fish and Wildlife and US Customs have different rules and regulations on importing living species, and it is your responsibility to understand them all.

To help you, we are listing the highlights of each department’s rules along with a link to more detailed information, forms, and contacts.

US Department and Fish and Wildlife

The US Department of Fish and Wildlife is the government agency responsible for the welfare of US resident wildlife and imported species.

The agency has four main roles that concern you when importing fish into the US:

  1. Ensure the species is healthy
  2. Ensure the species is not being imported illegally
  3. Ensure the species is not endangered or threatened
  4. Ensure the species is not invasive or destructive

Here is the information that is critical for you to know:

  • You will need a license to import tropical fish.
  • Any animal, including fish imported into the USA, whether wild-caught or domestically raised, is considered wildlife

-Wildlife is any living or dead wild animal, its parts, and products made from it. Wildlife not only includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, but also invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, arthropods, and mollusks.

  • You will need a license to import tropical fish.
  • Any animal, including fish imported into the USA, whether wild-caught or domestically raised, is considered wildlife
    – Wildlife is any living or dead wild animal, its parts, and products made from it. Wildlife not only includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, but also invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, arthropods, and mollusks.
  • The imported species must not be an Endangered, Threatened, or Injurious Species
    – It must not be endangered or threatened under US and country of origin regulations.
    – It also must meet state regulations for endangered, threatened, or invasive species.
  • Your shipment must arrive in the USA through one of the designated ports. These are:
    – Anchorage, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Newark, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.
  • Shipments from Canada and Mexico can go through US border ports
  • Shipments can be made to non-designated ports if they meet certain conditions and are cleared through a designated port.
  • Shipments of tropics fish must be declared using a Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife (Form 3-177)
  • Shipments must be cleared to enter the US.
  • There will be permits and fees associated with each shipment
  • In addition to US Customs, you may also need to meet requirements from:
    – The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
    – The U.S. Public Health Service
    – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
    – The National Marine Fisheries Service.
  • You should also contact your state fish and wildlife agency for state requirements & restrictions.

You can find a comprehensive list of questions and answers at https://www.fws.gov/le/commercial-wildlife-shipment.html.

US Customs and Border Protection

Customs and Border Protection [CBP] is the government agency responsible for enforcing the laws of other US agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S.

Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The combined goal of these agencies is to keep unsafe or dangerous wildlife out of the United States.

CBP will look for obvious things that are not allowed in the U.S.A., such as snakeheads and shipments that may conceal contraband ranging from exotic species to narcotics.

The underlying principle of the CBP is that items of a monetary value being brought into the U.S.A. are inspected according to their value. If you have ever shipped anything, you will remember the declared value declaration. The fish you import will have a declared value and may be subject to import duties based on that declared value.

To the best of our knowledge, tropical fish in small lots are not subject to duty and taxes.

Tropical fish are subject to an inspection and processing fee.

When your shipment of tropical fish arrives at the designated port, CBP will check the shipment in and make sure it is not subject to any unpaid duty or tax. If your shipment has arrived at a non-designated port without prior clearance, it may be refused, and your shipment runs the risk of dying.

Once the USDFW has conducted their inspection of your shipment and cleared it, CBP will release the shipment to you.

For more information on working with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, visit their website at https://www.cbp.gov/travel/us-citizens/know-before-you-go/prohibited-and-restricted-items.

Arriving Shipments

You can do some things upfront to make sure your shipment arrives and processes through smoothly.

Part of the incoming shipment paperwork is a species list containing your fish’s trade name and scientific names. Request that the person or company you purchase the fish fill this out and include it in their shipping paperwork. Also, have them send you a full, complete copy of all paperwork.

Incoming shipments may give you a range of dates when your fish will arrive. If you are provided with tracking, watch it closely, so your fish do not sit in a box in a freight house for any length of time.

If you do not have tracking, stay in contact with the shipper so you can get updates. They are not always the best at keeping you updated. Being proactive will help protect your tropical fish investment.

Once your shipment has cleared customs, as living wildlife, it must be inspected by an official from the US Department of Fish and Wildlife before it is released to you. Have this list with you when your fish are inspected in case the list has been lost. The USDFW inspector will check it against the actual fish.

Typically, if you bring in 8 or more fish, you will be required for an inspection. This inspection has a fee associated with it. It is your responsibility to arrange the inspection and pay the fee.

It is best if you call at least 48 hours in advance to have the inspection scheduled. Even if the inspection is only of your paperwork, you are required to pay the fee.

Summary

  • You will need an import license to bring tropical fish into the US.
  • The restriction of endangered, threatened, invasive or dangerous species applies to both the country of origin and the United States.
  • If at all possible, have your tropical fish clear customs and inspection in a designated port.
  • The more preparation you do before your shipment of fish arrives in the US, the easier the process will be for you.
  • Call your local USDFW and CBP offices and ask for their advice on the best shippers to use for bringing tropical fish into your port.
  • Ask your seller to include a species list as part of the shipping documents and the documents you have on hand when receiving your shipment.
  • You will have to have a declared value for your tropical fish.
  • Pay attention to the tracking information on your shipment so that you can be at the port when the fish have arrived.
  • Try to schedule an inspection with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in your area at least 48 hours before your shipment arrives.
  • Be courteous to the CBP and USDFW agents, and they will be helpful to you.
    Importing tropical fish is time, cost, and process-intensive, but it can take your passion for tropical fish to a whole new level as a collector, trader, or wholesaler.

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