Maine Men Sentenced for Illegally Trafficking American Eels

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Today, William Sheldon was sentenced in federal district court in Portland, Maine, to six months in prison followed by three years supervised release for trafficking juvenile American eels, also called “elvers” or “glass eels,” in violation of the Lacey Act, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. 

Sheldon was also ordered to pay a fine of $10,000, forfeit $33,200 in lieu of a truck he used during the crime, and may not possess a license to purchase or export elvers as a special condition of his supervised release. Also sentenced today for elver trafficking offenses was Timothy Lewis, who received a sentence of six months in prison followed by three years supervised release, with the special condition that he too may not possess a license to purchase or export elvers. Lewis was also ordered to pay a $2500 fine. Thomas Reno was also sentenced today to one year probation.

In the factual statement accompanying his guilty plea in October 2017, Sheldon, a licensed Maine elver dealer, admitted to trafficking nearly $550,000 worth of illegal elvers, and to taking specific steps to evade law enforcement detection. Lewis admitted to trafficking nearly $500,000 worth of illegal elvers, and Reno admitted to trafficking over $100,000 worth of illegal elvers. 

“Today’s sentences establish that the United States will not tolerate interstate and international transactions involving illegally taken wildlife,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “Despite their best efforts to evade law enforcement, these defendants were ultimately brought to justice, and we are very proud to have worked with our partners at the federal, state and local level to achieve this result.”   

“With today’s sentencings, the success of Operation Broken Glass continues,” said Acting Assistant Director Edward Grace for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement. “By working with our partners, we are actively working to dismantle an international wildlife trafficking scheme that not only harms American eels, but U.S. business owners and others who rely on healthy ecosystems for both ecological and economical purposes. Together, we will continue to protect native wildlife and our national resources for the continuing benefit of the American people."  

These sentences were the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels.  To date, the investigation has resulted in guilty pleas for twenty-one individuals whose combined conduct resulted in the illegal trafficking of more than $5 million worth of elvers.

Eels are highly valued in east Asia for human consumption.  Historically, Japanese and European eels were harvested to meet this demand; however, overfishing has led to a decline in the population of these eels.  As a result, harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the void resulting from the decreased number of Japanese and European eels.

American eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the North Atlantic Ocean bounded on all sides by ocean currents.  They then travel as larvae from the Sargasso to the coastal waters of the eastern United States, where they enter a juvenile or elver stage, swim upriver, and grow to adulthood in fresh water.  Elvers are exported for aquaculture in east Asia, where they are raised to adult size and sold for food.  Harvesters and exporters of American eels in the United States can sell elvers to east Asia for more than $2000 per pound.

Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the United States in all but two states: Maine and South Carolina.  Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities. Operation Broken Glass targeted illegal elver poaching in states without open fisheries, and the subsequent illegal transport and export of those elvers.

Operation Broken Glass was conducted by the USFWS and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section in collaboration with the Maine Marine Patrol, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Bureau of Law Enforcement, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Conservation Police, Virginia Marine Resources Commission Police, USFWS Refuge Law Enforcement, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, Massachusetts Environmental Police, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Law Enforcement, New York State Environmental Conservation Police, New Hampshire Fish and Game Division of Law Enforcement, Maryland Natural Resources Police, North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission Division of Law Enforcement, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Yarmouth, Massachusetts Division of Natural Resources, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Police Department, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The government is represented by Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorneys Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller.

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