Two men from midcoast Maine have been indicted in New Jersey as part of an East Coast baby eel trafficking scheme that so far has netted 19 guilty pleas.
Joseph Kelley of Woolwich and James Lewis of West Bath are charged in U.S. District Court in New Jersey with conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, two counts of violation of the Lacey Act and smuggling.
Prosecutors allege that during 2013 and 2014, the two men illegally harvested, transported and sold baby eels, also known as elvers.
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.
Federal prosecutors charged Kelley and Lewis with conspiring with other named conspirators — including Albert Cray of Phippsburg; Mark Green of West Bath; John Pinkham of Bath; George Anestis of Boxborough, Massachusetts; Michael Bryant of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts; and Thomas Choi, who owned a seafood company in Cambridge, Maryland — who purchased, sold or exported elvers worth more than $1.5 million, according to court documents.
Choi was sentenced in December to serve six months in prison for his role in the scheme.
Woolwich resident Bill 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 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.
The maximum sentence or each count is five years in prison and a $250,000 penalty.
Lewis was arraigned Feb. 15 before Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider and released on $25,000 unsecured bail, according to court documents.
Kelley did not appear at his arraignment and was arrested Feb. 20, according to court documents.
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