Brooklyn Seafood Dealer Pleads Guilty for Illegally Trafficking American Eels
Today, Tommy Water Zhou pled guilty in federal district court in Norfolk, Virginia, to trafficking more than $150,361 worth of juvenile American eels, aka “elvers” or “glass eels,” in violation of the Lacey Act. As part of his guilty plea, Zhou admitted to illegally selling or purchasing elvers in interstate commerce, which had been harvested illegally in Virginia.
According to the statement of facts filed with the plea agreement, in 2010, Zhou established a seafood distribution company known as Wilson Group Sea Trading LLC. The company’s principle place of business was Brooklyn, New York, and its operations included importing seafood for domestic consumption and exporting seafood to international markets. In 2013, the defendant obtained a Maine elver dealer license, authorizing him to purchase and resell elvers harvested in Maine. Thereafter, using his Maine dealer license to cover his illegal activity, the defendant began purchasing and exporting elvers that were actually harvested from Virginia waterways in violation of Virginia law.
This plea was 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 guilty pleas for eleven individuals whose combined conduct resulted in the illegal trafficking of more than $2.75 million worth of elvers.
The guilty plea was announced today by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Acting Director Jim Kurth of the USFWS.
“We will not allow illegal wildlife traffickers to undermine managed fish species like the American eel,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “In this operation, we are actively partnering with states all along the East Coast to enforce the law and protect our nation's waterways from further exploitation.”
“Illegal harvesting and trafficking of wildlife represents a dire threat to our critical ecosystems,” said U.S. Attorney Boente. “This investigation into illegal elver trafficking and resulting guilty plea reaffirms our commitment to protecting Virginia’s natural resources for future generations.”
“American eels are a key component of many healthy watersheds, and a priceless part of our natural heritage. Yet greed is driving criminals to harm the species in the United States, after virtually destroying eel populations in Asia,” said Acting Director Kurth. “Today’s guilty plea, along with previous indictments and guilty pleas from defendants in multiple states, demonstrate our resolve to arrest and prosecute those who put profits above the law.”
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 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.
“It is important for the preservation of the American eel stock that this type of greedy plundering of juvenile glass eels be stopped. This joint investigation is an excellent example of what cooperative law enforcement partnerships can achieve,” said Virginia Marine Police Chief Rick Lauderman. “We are grateful for the work done by the dedicated agents who participated in Operation Broken Glass.”
The offense in this case is a felony under the Lacey Act, each carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 or up to twice the gross pecuniary gain or loss, or both.
Sentencing is set for July 12.
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 the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorneys Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Kosky, Environment and Natural Resources Division