PORTLAND, Maine — Seven men waived indictment and pleaded guilty this week in U.S. District Court to illegally harvesting $1.9 million worth of elvers in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The men were netted in a multi-jurisdictional investigation dubbed Operation Broken Glass and headed up by agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Yarann Im, 34, of Portland, who was an elver dealer, admitted Tuesday to illegally catching, purchasing and selling about 480 pounds of elvers valued at more that $540,000 in 2013 and 2014.
Later in the week, John Pinkham, 49, of Bath, Mark Green, 50, and Thomas Reno, 43, both of West Bath, Michael Bryant, 39, of West Yarmouth and George Anestis, 44, of Boxborough, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to one count each of trafficking elvers they knew had been caught illegally. Thomas Choi, 75, of Henderson, Maryland, pleaded guilty to exporting elvers that had been harvested illegally.
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All seven men are free on personal recognizance bail.
Sentencing dates have not been set.
Elvers are worth many times more than adult eels when exported and sold to east Asian countries. Elvers fetched a record average price of $2,171 per pound in Maine in 2015.
“Skyrocketing prices for juvenile American eels in Asia have led to a surge in poaching and trafficking in this unique species, threatening to wipe it out in the rivers of the Northeast,” Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Thursday in a press release. “The prosecution of these poachers demonstrates our resolve to work with our state and federal law enforcement partners to halt illegal trade in American eels and sustain the species for future generations.”
To conceal their illegal sale and export of elvers, the defendants used Maine or Florida eel harvest licenses, whether theirs or someone else’s, to claim that the elvers caught illegally in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had been obtained legally from Maine or Florida waters, the press release said.
Elver export declaration packages submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included this false documentation in order to disguise the illegal origins of the elvers and to facilitate their export from the United States to buyers in east Asia.
Each defendant faces up to five years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000.