On Thursday, Bill Sheldon and Timothy Lewis became the latest of 17 men to plead guilty to federal charges of interstate trafficking in illegally harvested eels.

PORTLAND, Maine — A major dealer of baby eels on Thursday became the latest of more than a dozen men to plead guilty in federal court for their roles in an interstate wildlife trafficking ring.

Bill Sheldon, 71, of Woolwich changed his plea to violating the federal Lacey Act during an appearance in U.S. District Court in Portland. He faces up to five years in prison at his sentencing, which is expected to take place early next year.

Timothy Lewis, 46, of Phippsburg also appeared in court Thursday and changed his plea on the same charge to guilty.

The two men are among 17 total, including nine from Maine, who have pleaded guilty to buying or selling illegally harvested baby eels along the East Coast earlier this decade. The trafficking ring took advantage of exceptionally high prices and formerly lax regulations to net more than $5.6 million worth of poached elvers that they were able to pass off as having been legally caught.

[How Maine came to play a central role in an international eel smuggling scheme]

Both Sheldon and Lewis — who are free on bail — declined to comment after their half-hour hearings Thursday.

The plea changes were part of agreements that each man worked out with federal prosecutors. Both men are represented by defense attorney Walter McKee.

As part of the agreements, federal prosecutors are dismissing a charge of conspiracy against each man and a false labeling charge against Sheldon. In addition, Sheldon has agreed to forfeit his 2012 Ford F450 truck, which carries the Maine license plate “EELWGN.”

Sheldon, who has been credited with establishing Maine’s elver fishery decades ago, admitted Thursday that he bought elvers, or baby eels, that he knew had been caught in New Jersey and Virginia, where the fishery is banned. Over the course of the 2011 through 2014 elver fishing seasons, Sheldon bought and sold 281 pounds of poached elvers, worth about $545,000, according to court documents.

In one transaction at an Ellsworth motel in April 2013, Sheldon paid a law enforcement agent working undercover $23,000 cash for 10 pounds of elvers purportedly caught in New Jersey, according to court documents.

“Look, be careful,” Sheldon told the agent after giving him the money, according to court documents. “If they catch you, you will be in awful big [expletive] trouble.”

Lewis admitted on Thursday to trafficking in 258 pounds of elvers, estimated to have a fair market value of $413,403, from 2012 through 2014.

Maine is one of only two states, the other being South Carolina, that allow elver harvesting.

Of the 17 men who have pleaded guilty so far, only four have been sentenced — one in Maine and three in South Carolina — and none has been ordered to serve time in prison as a result of their convictions.

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.

McKee has objected to his client being referred to as a “kingpin,” saying that the amount of poached elvers Sheldon bought and sold from 2011 to 2014 is only “a fraction of a percent” of the amount he has handled legally.

Sheldon and Lewis have waived their right to appeal any sentence that includes a prison term of 30 months or less, but will not be able to change their guilty pleas.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....