Eight years after a federal investigation began with undercover fisheries enforcement officers gathering evidence on a wildlife trafficking scheme, the last two of 21 men charged with poaching baby eels were sentenced this week in New Jersey.
Joseph Kelley and James Lewis are among 12 Maine residents — including nine who live in Sagadahoc County — charged in the scheme, which netted more than $5 million in illegally caught American eels in nine different states. Between 2011 and 2014, the 21 men caught or trafficked in baby eels in multiple locations along the East Coast, ranging from South Carolina to Maine, and then exported them to Asia.
Fourteen of the defendants were charged in federal court in Maine for participating in the scheme.
Kelley, of Woolwich, and Lewis, of West Bath, were sentenced Monday in Camden, New Jersey, for their roles in the network of unscrupulous fishermen and dealers who illegally caught and then shipped millions of eels out of the country. Conservationists have expressed concern about the declining number of American eels, but in 2015 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declined to include the species among the types of animals protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Kelley pleaded guilty in August to illegally harvesting and transporting baby eels, also known as elvers, in New Jersey and Massachusetts in 2013 and 2014. According to federal court documents, he was involved in at least one transaction of 91 pounds of elvers that resulted in a payment of $109,000.
Kelley and Lewis each were sentenced Monday on one count of smuggling, according to federal court records. Kelly was ordered to serve 5 years of probation, 8 months of home confinement and to pay a fine of $5,000. Lewis was ordered to serve 3 years probation, 8 months of home confinement, and to pay a $4,000 fine.
Kelley’s defense attorney, Harold Kokes of Pleasantville, New Jersey, said that under home confinement, Kelley will be allowed to continue working as a fisherman and to attend church and legal appointments, but otherwise will have to remain at his legal residence.
“He is greatly relieved his family remains intact and he continues to be able to work,” Kokes said Wednesday. “He was unbelievably grateful that Judge Noel Hillman gave him probation [instead of prison time].”
A voice message left with Lewis’ attorney, public defender Lori Koch of Camden, New Jersey, was not returned.
Most of the defendants in the case have received probation and been ordered to pay fines, though a few have been ordered to serve time in prison. Three of the five defendants who received prison sentences were licensed fisheries dealers, including Woolwich resident Bill Sheldon, who is regarded as the founder of the fishery in Maine.
Since 2011, when the global demand for baby eels soared, law-abiding fishermen in Maine have earned an average of $1,670 per pound for their catch and generated tens of millions of dollars in fishing revenue each year. One pound of elvers contains approximately 2,000 to 2,500 individual baby eels.
This spring, Maine fishermen legally caught more than $20 million in elvers, averaging a price of more than $2,000 per pound for the second consecutive year. Elver fishing in the U.S. is allowed only in South Carolina and Maine, and Maine’s annual harvest is much bigger than South Carolina’s.