Illicit Eel

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The movement of wild animals, a topic we have covered in these pages dozens of times already, never stops providing surprises; thanks to the FERN for the story on this one:

Inside the multimillion-dollar world of eel trafficking

Agents with the U.S. government’s ‘Operation Broken Glass’ have nabbed more than a dozen men for smuggling valuable baby eels to Asia

The alleged kingpin of one of the biggest domestic wildlife smuggling operations ever to hit the East Coast is exactly where you’d expect to find him on a rainy evening in early May: firmly planted in a swivel chair at a big green metal desk inside his renovated Quonset hut on Foster Street, in Ellsworth, Maine.

At this post Bill Sheldon waits day and night for fishermen to come and fill his bowl with writhing masses of baby eels.

The 72-year-old fisherman wears glasses, a blue flannel shirt, jeans, duck boots, and a brown L.L. Bean baseball cap. His cell phone goes quack, quack, quackwhen it rings. The sign above his head reads, “Buying Glass Eels Here,” with the day’s market price: $1,250 per pound. The eel bowl sits atop a digital scale on a small, four-legged table. Nearby a scented candle burns in a glass jar (“to cut the fish smell”).

Grandfatherly and laid-back, Sheldon doesn’t look the part of a serious criminal. But on March 30, one week after the start of Maine’s 10-week-long eel fishing season, Sheldon and another man, Timothy Lewis, were indicted for illegally trafficking wildlife. They pleaded not guilty.

According to court documents, Lewis, 46, is charged with two felonies involved with conspiring to unlawfully launder eels up and down the East Coast. Sheldon, who operated a business called Kennebec Glass Eels at his home in Woolwich, a motel in Ellsworth, and a rental house in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, is up against more serious charges: seven counts of conspiracy to smuggle eels while violating laws in seven states (Maine, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and South Carolina).

For each felony Sheldon faces a maximum sentence of a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison, as well as the forfeiture of any related vessels, equipment, and vehicles, including a black 2012 Ford F450 with the license plate EELWGN. (He preemptively sold the truck but kept the vanity plate.) Sheldon and Lewis are scheduled for separate hearings in July.

For now Sheldon is free to buy eels for a newly formed company, Maine Eel Trade & Aquaculture, which opened in 2015, with purchasing locations in Waldoboro, Portland, Steuben, and the Quonset hut in Ellsworth.

He isn’t keen to have a journalist hanging around asking questions about his indictment, but he allows me to pull up a chair at the desk where he punches numbers on a large calculator and works on a black laptop. The table holds an old Velvet pipe and cigarette tobacco can and a sizable ashtray.

The room is filled with the thrum of water bubbling in large blue aerated tanks containing thousands of two-inch-long translucent baby eels—“glass eels”—which look like Thai noodles. Every few days the tanks get trucked to a location where the eels are packed in clear plastic bags filled with oxygenated water and boxed by the kilo.

Agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspect perhaps one in four of the eel boxes, looking for hidden animals, before they’re shipped to Asia to be raised on giant aquaculture farms.

Within a year, when the farmed eels reach about a foot long, they’re harvested and prepared—split down the back, gutted, deboned, butterflied, cut into square fillets, skewered, dipped in a sweet soy sauce, and grilled. Then they’re vacuum- packed and exported to be served, as unagi, at sushi joints all over the world, including the United States…

Read the whole story here.

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