June 20, 2018
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Two men sentenced in baby eel trafficking scheme

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this May 25, 2017 photo, baby eels swim in a bucket after being caught near Brewer, Maine. On Thursday, two men were sentenced in federal court in Maine to each serve 6 months in prison for their roles in an international eel smuggling scheme.
By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

Two men charged in federal court in Maine for their role in an East Coast eel trafficking operation each were sentenced Thursday to six months behind bars.

Two seafood dealers — Yarann Im of Portland, Maine, and Thomas Choi of Henderson, Maryland — are among 19 men charged with participating in a scheme to illegally harvest and sell baby eels, also known as elvers.

Im and Choi were sentenced Thursday in Portland by federal Judge Jon Levy to serve six months in prison, while Choi also was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine, according to a prepared statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The criminal trafficking ring was infiltrated and exposed by a federal undercover sting known as Operation Broken Glass, in reference to the nickname for elvers of “glass eels.” Federal officials said that from 2011 through 2014, the 19 men poached, sold and transported more than $5.25 million worth of baby eels in several states along the East Coast, where the baby eels migrate to shore from the Atlantic ocean each spring.

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 in only the Cooper River. States where the elvers were illegally caught and sold include Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina (outside the Cooper River) and Virginia.

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.

The vast majority of baby eels caught in the U.S. are transported live to East Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds to adult stage and then harvested for sale in the region’s robust seafood market. 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.

According to federal officials, in 2013 and 2014 Im bought and sold at least 480 pounds of illegally caught elvers — more than half a million dollars’ worth — that he knew had been caught illegally in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia. As part of his operation, Im maintained several tanks for holding elvers at a home in Lowell, Massachusetts, where possession of elvers is illegal, federal prosecutors have said.

Choi pleaded guilty earlier this year to trafficking in more than $1.2 million worth of illegally caught eels in 2013 and 2014. Licensed as an eel dealer in both Maryland and Maine, Choi shipped the poached eels out of the country from a Cambridge, Maryland, business he owned called ONEEL, also known also as Blue Ocean, according to federal court documents.

To help cloak their illegal activity, both Im and Choi obtained eel licenses from Florida — Im a harvester’s license and Choi a dealer’s license — so that, if officials found them with elvers in their possession, they could claim they obtained them in Florida. But according to prosecutors, there is no viable eel fishery in that state because “the eels’ migration patterns mean that there are vanishingly few elvers to be harvested in Florida’s waters.”

On Tuesday, another Maine resident became the 19th person to plead guilty to participating in the scheme, according to federal officials.

Albert Cray, 40, of West Bath, is accused of catching and selling more than $250,000 worth of elvers in and around Millville, New Jersey, in 2013. His sentencing date has not yet been set.

Michael Bryant, who was sentenced in May, Im and Choi are the only three men out of the 14 charged in federal court in Maine as a result of the federal investigation who have been sentenced so far. Three other men have had their cases handled in federal court in South Carolina and two more, one of whom is Waldoboro resident Richard Austin, have been sentenced in federal court in Virginia.

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