Two Maine men were sentenced Thursday to serve federal probation and to pay fines for their roles in an interstate baby eel trafficking ring.
Michael Squillace, 40, of Woolwich, and John Pinkham, 51, of Bath, each pleaded guilty last summer to trafficking in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of illegally harvested baby eels, or elvers.
They are among 19 men charged in federal court in three different states with illegally catching, selling and transporting more than $5.25 million worth of elvers in nine East Coast states from 2011 through 2014, according to prosecutors.
Squillace sold $374,000 worth of the eels in 2012 to a Maine elver dealer who has not been publicly identified, according to federal court documents. In 2013 and 2014, Pinkham sold $148,000 worth of poached elvers, some of which he caught, to a Maryland elver dealer.
Appearing Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland, Squillace was ordered by Judge Jon Levy to serve two years of probation and to pay $141,000 in restitution, plus a $5,000 fine. The same day, Levy ordered Pinkham to serve two years of probation and to pay a $3,000 fine.
Squillace and another defendant, Massachusetts resident Robert Bowdoin, voluntarily provided $141,000 in cash from illegal elver trafficking proceeds to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers in April 2012, according to court documents.
Eleven of the 19 defendants have been sentenced so far in Maine, South Carolina and Virginia. Sentences have ranged from two years of probation and no fine or restitution for some defendants to two years in federal prison for others. Some also have been ordered to pay fines or restitution of $25,000 or more.
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,” which 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 only in the Cooper River.
Before Maine adopted stricter management restrictions in 2014, many baby 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.
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