PORTLAND, Maine — In a stunning downfall for one of the most influential fishermen in Maine, a Woolwich man described by national news media as “Maine’s elver kingpin” and “ the grandfather of eel fishing” was sentenced Thursday in federal court to serve six months in prison for his role in an East Coast wildlife trafficking scheme.
William “Bill” Sheldon, 71, also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and, after he gets out of prison, to serve 3 years of supervised release for having bought and sold juvenile eels that he knew had been caught illegally.
“I broke the law and I know it,” Sheldon told Judge Jon Levy during his sentencing in U.S. District Court. “And I know I have to answer for it.”
Sheldon plead ed guilty last fall to one count of violating the federal Lacey Act by trafficking in baby eels, also known as elvers, that other fishermen caught in New Jersey and Virginia, where the practice 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.
He is one of 21 men, 12 of whom live in Maine, who later were charged in four states with participating in a scheme to illegally catch or to trade in illegally caught elvers. In all, the defendants caught, sold and transported more than $5.25 million worth of illegally caught elvers in nine East Coast states from 2011 through 2014, according to prosecutors.
The juvenile eels were shipped live to Asia, where demand is high and imported eels are raised in aquaculture ponds and then harvested as adults for the global seafood market. Elver fishing in the United States is permitted only in Maine and South Carolina, which has a much smaller fishery than Maine’s.
Levy prohibited Sheldon from working as an elver dealer or exporter during his period of supervised release, but said Sheldon would be allowed to continue fishing for elvers after he gets out of prison.
According to Sheldon’s attorney, Walter McKee, his client already has voluntarily given up his dealer’s license, working for the past few years as a paid employee of Maine Eel Trade and Aquaculture, and has not been accused of violating any fishing laws. He said Sheldon, who this elver season has continued to work as a buyer for META in Ellsworth, has no interest in getting a new dealer’s license.
Sheldon is licensed by the state to personally catch up to 39.4 pounds of elvers each year, according to McKee. At the current prevailing prices of roughly $2,500 per pound, that amount would fetch Sheldon $98,000 in annual gross revenue.
Prosecutors had recommended that Sheldon get 18 months in prison — which is the sentence imposed on another elver dealer sentenced last fall in Virginia — while Sheldon had sought a sentence of home confinement.
Sheldon faced a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and 3 years of supervised release. As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, Sheldon waived his right to appeal any sentence of imprisonment of 30 months or less.
Last week, Levy signed an order requiring Sheldon to forfeit $33,200 in lieu of a 2012 Ford pickup truck that Sheldon used to transport illegally harvested elvers he bought from other fishermen. After federal agents searched the truck in the 2014 raid, Sheldon sold it to someone else. The license plates read, “EELWGN.”
Sheldon, described by federal prosecutors in court documents as “not just another elver dealer,” once boasted to an undercover federal agent that in 2013 he legitimately bought and sold more than $5 million worth of juvenile eels — which at the time was roughly 15 percent of the entire American juvenile eel market. In other years, when the volume and value of the catch was relatively low, Sheldon bought more than half the statewide harvest in Maine.
“He knows more about elver fishing than anyone,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Cassandra Barnum told the judge. “He’s been a mentor to other defendants in this investigation. He’s famous. That’s why Buzzfeed wrote about him.”
Federal agents raided Sheldon’s Ellsworth motel room in 2014 as part of an investigation into interstate elver trafficking dubbed “Operation Broken Glass.”
Sheldon, who has been known to wear a fur coat made from fishers he trapped himself while dealing with elver fishermen, is widely regarded as the founder of the fishery in Maine, which over the past seven years averaged more than $18 million in annual elver catch revenue.
According to McKee, his client graduated from the University of Maine in 1969 with a wildlife management degree and then, while working for the state Department of Marine Resources in the 1970s, wrote a paper on how to catch and transport live juvenile eels.
“At that time, little was known about fishing for elvers and there were almost no regulations,” McKee wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
The paper was well received by state regulators and fishermen alike, McKee added, and after a few years Sheldon decided to leave the agency and become a commercial fisherman. He later developed and patented the “Sheldon” trap for catching eels.
But federal prosecutors said greed eventually got the best of Sheldon. He was not satisfied with the “remarkable” share of Maine’s legal wholesale elver market that he developed, and instead encouraged other fishermen to illegally harvest juvenile eels, they wrote in a separate sentencing memorandum.
Sheldon’s background in studying and establishing the fishery in Maine would suggest that he might have a greater appreciation than most people for the conservation restrictions placed on the fishery, but “the opposite appears to be true,” prosecutors said. “He squeezed the fishery for every extra dollar.”
Sheldon, they added, “broke the law simply to satisfy his greed.”
After the sentencing, Sheldon declined to comment further on his situation as he left the courthouse with his wife. He is scheduled to report to prison on June 7, which is when the 2018 elver fishing season ends and which will allow him to attend his granddaughter’s high school graduation before serving his sentence.
Barnum also declined to comment after the sentencing.
McKee said he and Sheldon had hoped Levy would not impose any time behind bars, but added that the sentence “clearly could have been worse.” He said Sheldon is glad that he will be able to remain active in the fishery he helped establish nearly 50 years ago.
“It’s important that Bill will be able to continue to fish for elvers,” McKee said.
Two other Mainers also were sentenced separately Thursday in federal court in Portland after having pleaded guilty to trafficking in poached eels.
Timothy Lewis, 46 of Phippsburg, who trafficked in $413,000 worth of poached elvers, was ordered by Levy to serve 6 months in prison, 3 years of supervised release and to pay a $2,500 fine. Thomas Reno, 44, of West Bath, who trafficked in $110,000 worth of poached elvers, was ordered to serve one year of probation, without any prison time or fines.
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