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Press Release

Two Men Arrested and Indicted for Illegally Exporting Juvenile American Eels from Puerto Rico

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned an indictment on February 29, 2024, charging two Dominican nationals with smuggling goods from the United States, Lacey Act trafficking, and failure to heave to, announced W. Stephen Muldrow, United States Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.

According to court documents, on February 21, 2024, Saul Enrique José De La Cruz and Simon De La Cruz Paredes, knowingly exported and attempted to export juvenile American eels from the United States without declaring said merchandise to officials of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 554. The defendants were also charged with one count of Lacey Act trafficking for transporting and intending to sell the fish in violation of United States regulations, and one additional count of failure to heave to when they failed to obey the United States Coast Guard’s order to stop their vessel.

During a morning patrol, a Customs and Border Protection aircraft detected a suspicious vessel, approximately 39 nautical miles north of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The United States Coast Guard responded to interdict the vessel, which was flagless and outfitted for smuggling.  Upon approach, the defendants failed to heave to, obligating the United States Coast Guard to neutralize the vessel. The defendants were caught on board in possession of approximately 22 bags of over 5,000 live American eels per bag that were being transported from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic.

The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a species of fish native to the Eastern United States and the Caribbean. The American eel is a “catadromous” species, meaning that it reproduces in saltwater systems and matures in fresh water (riverine) systems. American eel eggs hatch in the Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea, after which ocean currents carry the juvenile eels along the eastern American coast. Tidal fluctuations then wash the eels into freshwater river systems, including the rivers of Puerto Rico, after which they migrate upstream. At this juvenile stage, during which the eels are transparent and measure approximately 2-3 inches in length, the eels are referred to as an “elvers” or a “glass eels.” Once a glass eel matures, it will return to the Sargasso Sea in order to spawn.

American eels have not been successfully bred in captivity. The commercial market is therefore concentrated on the juvenile glass eel stage. Once captured, glass eels are typically sold to aquaculture facilities in Asia, where they are raised into adults and sold for sushi and other foods.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to enforcing federal environmental protection laws and to holding violators responsible for the harm they cause. These laws protect the animals, resources, and habitats within Puerto Rico,” said United States Attorney Muldrow. 

“This case highlights the extreme measures smuggling organizations are undertaking in violation of U.S. fishing laws to access and sell baby American eels in the international market, an activity that threatens to endanger the American eel population in the Caribbean,” said Cmdr. Gerard Wenk, Sector San Juan chief of response. “We appreciate the close coordination and collaboration of our CBP and Puerto Rico Police partners that was instrumental in achieving a successful interdiction and apprehension of the two suspects.”

“One of our highest priorities is to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and investigate individuals and organizations who are involved in the unlawful commercialization of our nation’s fish and wildlife. The illegal harvesting of American eels poses a vital threat to the survival of this essential species and undermines legal fishery management, jeopardizing the ecosystem,” said USFWS Office of Law Enforcement Assistant Director Ed Grace.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison. If found guilty, a federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement are leading the investigation in this case, with the collaboration of the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the Puerto Rico Police Bureau, Joint Forces of Rapid Action (FURA). The Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources has also provided valuable assistance.

The case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Patrick M. Duggan of the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice and Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth A. Erbe, Environmental Litigation Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.


Updated April 5, 2024

Environmental Justice
Animal Welfare
Press Release Number: 24-011