October 24, 2018
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Maine man gets probation, $5K fine for trafficking in baby eels

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Elvers squirm in a bucket at a seafood dealership in Portland in this 2014 file photo. Steuben resident Scott Willey, 49, was sentenced Thursday in Portland to two years probation and a $5,000 fine for his role in an East Coast elver trafficking ring.

A Steuben man has been sentenced to serve two years probation and to pay a $5,000 fine for his role in an East Coast baby eel trafficking scheme.

Scott Willey, 49, was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland by Judge Jon Levy. Willey pleaded guilty in June to one count of violating the federal Lacey Act by trafficking in American eels.

Willey illegally harvested baby eels, also known as elvers, in Virginia and South Carolina in 2012 and 2013, according to federal prosecutors. Fishing for elvers is illegal in all states except Maine, where it is permitted along the entire coast, and South Carolina, where the practice is permitted only in the Cooper River.

During the two-year period, Willey poached nearly 29 pounds of elvers, which prosecutors say had a market value of more than $58,000.

Since 2011, when demand for American elvers shot up, the average price paid to fishermen for baby eels has been more than $1,500 per pound.

Before Maine adopted stricter management restrictions in 2014, many eels poached elsewhere were smuggled into the state, mixed in with the legal harvest, and then sold and shipped out of the country.

Federal court documents indicate Willey sold the elvers he caught illegally to Woolwich resident Bill Sheldon, who also was charged for his role in the wildlife trafficking ring. Sheldon, one of the country’s major elver dealers, pleaded guilty in October to elver trafficking, but his sentencing date has not yet been set.

In all, 19 men have pleaded guilty in Maine, Virginia and South Carolina to violating the Lacey Act by poaching elvers outside of Maine and then selling them live for export to East Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds for the region’s seafood market. Fourteen of the defendants have had their cases handled in federal court in Maine.

From 2011 through 2014, the 19 men poached, sold and transported more than $5.25 million worth of baby eels, according to prosecutors.

Two other men also were sentenced Thursday in federal court in Portland. Yarann Im, a dealer from Portland, and Thomas Choi, a dealer from Henderson, Maryland, each were sentenced to serve six months in prison for their roles in the scheme.

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