Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

7 men plead guilty for illegally trading American eels

Seven Men Plead Guilty for Illegally Harvesting and Selling American Eels

Between the dates of October 4 and October 6, seven individuals pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Portland, Maine, to trafficking more than $1.9 million worth of juvenile American eels, also known as “elvers,” in violation of the Lacey Act.

Yarann Im, Mark Green, John Pinkham, Thomas Reno, Michael Bryant and George Anestis each pleaded guilty to selling or transporting elvers in interstate commerce, that they had harvested illegally, or knew had been harvested illegally, in various East Coast states, including Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, among others.  Thomas Choi pleaded guilty to exporting elvers that he knew had been harvested illegally in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

The guilty pleas were announced today by Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Director Dan Ashe of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  The pleas were the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction USFWS investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels.

“Without the robust enforcement of our nation’s wildlife laws, trafficking in species like the protected American eel will undermine vital marine resources to the point of no return,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The American eel is a unique and economically important species in river systems along the U.S. east coast.  These convictions should send a strong message that we will investigate and prosecute poaching as a serious crime, standing side by side with our state law enforcement partners.”

“Skyrocketing prices for juvenile American eels in Asia have led to a surge in poaching and trafficking in this unique species, threatening to wipe it out in the rivers of the Northeast,” said Director Ashe.  “The prosecution of these poachers demonstrates our resolve to work with our state and federal law enforcement partners to halt illegal trade in American eels and sustain the species for future generations.  The success and scope of Operation Broken Glass would not have been possible without this unparalleled collaboration, which will serve as a model for future investigations.”

“Elver landings are one of Maine’s largest revenue producing marine resources,” said Maine Marine Patrol Colonel Jon Cornish.  “Strong enforcement of both state and federal statutes are a key to the success of this fishery.  Maine Marine Patrol is proud to have been a participant within Operation Broken Glass.  These cases represent the results of what can be accomplished when agencies partner effectively.”

“This investigation is an example of excellent collaboration between wildlife law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local level,” said Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck of NOAA Fisheries.  “NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement will continue to support investigations to ensure that those fishermen who obey the rules reap the benefits of fair competition and those who do not are caught and justice served.”

“The waters of New Jersey provide ideal conditions for migrating juvenile American eels,” said Director Dave Chanda of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish &Wildlife.  “Despite laws banning American eel harvest, New Jersey continues to experience pressure from those looking to illegally target this highly desired resource to meet overseas demand.  In their pursuit of financial gain, these individuals demonstrated deliberate indifference to the health and viability of our state’s natural resource.”

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 resulting void.

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 Sea 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 Asian buyers for more than $2000 per pound.

Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the United States in all but three states: Maine, South Carolina and Florida.  Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities.  Although Florida does not have specific elver-related regulations, the limited population of elvers in Florida waters makes commercial elver fishing impossible.

The seven defendants all illegally harvested, sold, transported, or exported elvers, knowing they had been harvested in violation of state law.  Further, as a means of concealing the illegal sale and export of elvers, the defendants used Maine or Florida eel harvest licenses, whether theirs or someone else’s, to claim in required paperwork that the elvers were obtained legally from Maine or Florida waters.  Elver export declaration packages submitted to the USFWS included this false documentation in order to disguise the illegal origins of the elvers and to facilitate their export from the United States to buyers in east Asia.

The offenses in the case are felonies 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, MA Division of Natural Resources, North Myrtle Beach, SC Police Department and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

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

Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs