William Sheldon, 71, of Woolwich, Maine, and Timothy Lewis, 46, of Phippsburg, Maine, were each indicted in Portland, Maine, with crimes related to illegally trafficking juvenile American eels, also known as “elvers” or “glass eels.” A seven-count indictment was returned on March 1, charging Sheldon with conspiracy to smuggle elvers and violate the Lacey Act. A two-count indictment was returned on March 29, charging Lewis with conspiracy to traffic elvers and violate the Lacey Act. Sheldon was arraigned today in U.S. District Court in Portland. An arraignment for Lewis will be scheduled in the future.
The indictments were announced today by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Acting Director Jim Kurth of the USFWS.
These indictments were the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels. To date, the investigation has resulted in these two indictments, as well as guilty pleas for eleven individuals in Maine, Virginia and South Carolina. These eleven defendants combined have admitted to illegally trafficking more than $2.75 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 U.S., 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 U.S. can sell elvers to east Asia for more than $2000 per pound.
Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the U.S. 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.
The offense in this case is a felony under the Lacey Act, each carrying a maximum penalty of five years’ incarceration, a fine of up to $250,000 or up to twice the gross pecuniary gain or loss, or both.
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.
An indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws and every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty.
The government is represented by Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorneys Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.