Overfishing Operation Nets Three Eel Traffickers

Shinji Hashimoto, owner of Michelin one-star unagi restaurant bearing his name, grills skewered eels over charcoal before steaming and more grilling with sauce. The unagi restaurant first opened in 1853 and is now in its sixth generation. The restaurant uses only farmed eels, which tend to be larger and fattier than wild eels. The endangered Japanese summer delicacy may get a new lease on life with commercial farming. (AP Photo/Sherry Zheng)

(CN) — Three men pleaded guilty Thursday to trafficking juvenile American eels — a species at risk of overfishing as harvesters try to meet demand in the East Asian markets.

Japanese and European eels were the more traditional fare but their populations are critically low due to overfishing.

Prosecutors say juvenile American eels, also known as elvers or glass eels, can fetch more than $2,000 per pound when exported to East Asia, where they are raised to adult size and sold for food.

Maine and South Carolina are the only two U.S. states where elver harvesting is not prohibited in response to overfishing, but both jurisdictions heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities. 

As part of its multistate crackdown on eel trafficking, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says its

“Operation Broken Glass” has resulted in 18 guilty pleas in Maine, Virginia and South Carolina.  The defendants are responsible collectively for the illegally trafficking of more than $4.5 million worth of elvers.

William Sheldon, Timothy Lewis, and Charles Good joined the list on Thursday, pleading guilty before a federal judge in Portland, Maine, to violations of the Lacey Act.

The Justice Department notes that Sheldon and Lewis were each separately indicted by a grand jury in March 2017 for conspiring to smuggle elvers and violate the Lacey Act.

Good pleaded guilty to an information charging him with aiding and abetting the illegal transport of elvers in violation of the Lacey Act.

Felony violations of the Lacey Act carry 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.

Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller led the latest prosecution for the Justice Department.

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