The man regarded as the founder of Maine’s elver fishery will plead guilty to violating federal law by trafficking in more than half a million dollars worth of poached baby eels.
Bill Sheldon and federal prosecutors reached the agreement on Sunday. Sheldon has waived his right to appeal any sentence that includes a prison term of 30 months or less.
The plea agreement does not say whether Sheldon and prosecutors may have discussed a fine, but under federal law, Sheldon could face a maximum fine of $250,000.
Sheldon bought elvers, or baby eels, that he knew had been caught in New Jersey and Virginia, where the fishery is banned, prosecutors have said. Over the course of the 2011 through 2014 elver fishing seasons, Sheldon allegedly bought and sold 281 pounds of poached elvers, worth about $545,000, according to court documents.
Sheldon, 71, of Woolwich, is scheduled to appear in federal court in Portland at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 5, to formally enter his guilty plea. Another Maine man charged with trafficking in poached elvers — Timothy Lewis, 46, of Phippsburg — also has reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors and is scheduled for a separate plea hearing on the same day.
Sheldon, who has licenses to fish for and deal in baby eels, and Lewis are among roughly a dozen men from several East Coast states allegedly involved in a multi-million dollar poaching ring that earlier this decade shipped millions of dollars of illegally harvested elvers to eastern Asia. Most of the other men charged by federal prosecutors have already pleaded guilty.
Maine’s elver fishery produces thousands of pounds of legally caught baby eels each year, and are distributed through seafood markets worldwide. The biggest market for seafood is in eastern Asia, where the baby eels are raised in aquaculture ponds and then harvested and sold, predominantly as unagi in sushi restaurants.
The value of Maine’s elver fishery has boomed in recent years as demand in Asia for the translucent, spaghetti-like elvers has soared. Since 2012, the value of Maine’s annual total landings of elvers caught during the 10-week fishing season has averaged more than $20 million each year, with fishermen being paid on average roughly $1,600 per pound over that same time period.
According to a 2013 BuzzFeed article, which described Sheldon as an “elver kingpin,” Sheldon paid out a total of $12 million to fishermen he bought from during Maine’s 2012 elver season, when the value of the annual statewide harvest peaked at $40 million. There are several hundred licensed elver fishermen in Maine, which with South Carolina are the only two states that have legal elver fisheries. South Carolina’s fishery is much smaller than Maine’s.
The vast majority of elvers handled by Sheldon over the past several years have been harvested and distributed legally, his attorney, Walter McKee, said.
“Bill looks forward to giving the rest of the story at sentencing,” McKee said. “He is hardly any ‘kingpin’ as he has been called over the past two years. We will show at sentencing that the total alleged illegal elvers were just north of 1 percent of the total legal elvers Bill purchased from 2011 to 2017.”
Over the past few years, the state of Maine has significantly stiffened elver fishing and dealing regulations — imposing individual catch limits and banning cash transactions, among other restrictions — which has significantly reduced the amount of illegally-harvested elvers that have been secretly funneled through the state’s legal elver fishery.