On Friday, April 14, Richard Austin, of Waldoboro, pleaded guilty in federal district court in Norfolk, Va. to trafficking juvenile American eels, aka “elvers” or “glass eels,” in violation of the Lacey Act, according to 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As part of his guilty plea, Austin admitted to illegally transporting or selling elvers in interstate commerce, which had been harvested illegally in Virginia and Massachusetts. According to the statement of facts filed with the plea agreement, Austin, a fisherman from Maine, traveled to locations near Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Newport News, Va., as well as Massachusetts, to illegally harvest elvers. Austin then sold the elvers to dealers from Illinois and New York, who exported them from the U.S. to buyers in Asia. From 2013-2015, Austin trafficked approximately $189,374 worth of illegally harvested elvers.
This plea was the result of Operation Broken Glass, a multiple-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 12 individuals whose combined conduct resulted in the illegal trafficking of more than $2.94 million worth of elvers.
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 U.S., 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, 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.
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 19.
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, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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, Mass. Division of Natural Resources, North Myrtle Beach, S.C. Police Department, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The government is represented by Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorneys Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Kosky.