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Yarann Im was sentenced to six months imprisonment and three years of supervised release and Thomas Choi was sentenced to six months in prison with a fine of $25,000 today for trafficking juvenile American eels (also called “elvers” or “glass eels”) in violation of the Lacey Act, following a hearing in federal district court in Portland, Maine. The sentence was announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
In October 2016, Im pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act by purchasing elvers in interstate commerce that had been harvested illegally in Virginia, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. Court documents indicate that Im trafficked at least 480 pounds of elvers, which is almost one-million individual eels, and worth more than $500,000. Im subsequently sold these elvers to international buyers and exported them from the United States.
This sentencing follows the entry of a guilty plea on December 12, 2017, by Albert Cray in federal district court in Portland, Maine, to trafficking elvers in violation of the Lacey Act. As part of his guilty plea, Cray admitted to illegally transporting or selling elvers in interstate commerce, which had been harvested illegally in New Jersey. According to the statement of facts filed with the plea agreement, Cray was a fisherman from Maine, who travelled to locations near Millville, New Jersey, to illegally harvest elvers. Cray then sold the elvers to a dealer from Maryland, who exported them from the United States to buyers in Asia. In 2013, Cray trafficked approximately $253,518 worth of illegally-harvested elvers.
“The poaching and illegal selling of American eels negatively impacts not only the species but also the economies of our East Coast states and the livelihood of local U.S. fishermen who legally harvest these eels,” said Edward Grace, Acting Chief of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These recent court actions should serve as a warning to those who illegally profit from our country’s natural resources. You will be caught and held accountable.”
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 these populations. As a result, harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the 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 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 $2,000 per pound.
Because of the threat of overfishing, Atlantic Coast states have cooperatively prohibited elver harvesting 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. Other Atlantic coast states, including Virginia, have commercial fisheries for adult or “yellow” eels.
This case was the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels. To date, the investigation has resulted in guilty pleas for 19 individuals whose combined conduct resulted in the illegal trafficking of more than $5.25 million worth of elvers.
Operation Broken Glass was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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.