By Jay Field
A federal investigation into the illegal buying and selling of glass eels is picking up speed and may soon result in indictments of dozens of people. In recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has led raids in Maine and in other states along the eastern seaboard as part of Operation Broken Glass. As Jay Field reports, the investigation is focusing on networks of poachers who catch elvers and sell them for large amounts of cash to dealers in Maine and elsewhere for eventual export to the lucrative Asian market.
Freshwater eels are a staple food in Asia. China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have all developed sophisticated acquaculture operations that import baby eels and raise them for use in delicacies like sushi.
Elver poaching inside Maine, one of only two states with a legal glass eel fishery, has long been a problem. It got worse, though, between 2011 and 2013, when the European Union reduced exports of elvers, demand in Asia soared and the price for glass eels from Maine went as high as $2,600 a pound.
"Usually we see a lot of cases of poaching at fishways and other places," says Patrick Keliher, Maine's marine resources comissioner. "And that has been very minimal this year."
This year, under orders from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the state agreed to limit its catch to just under 12,000 pounds. All 949 licensed elver fishermen in Maine now have a swipe cards.
In the past, there was nothing stopping out-of-state poachers from bringing eels into Maine and getting a licensed fisherman to sell their catch for a kickback. But now, a computer program, synced to the swipe card system, lets the state track a fisherman's progress towards his individual quota and exactly how many pounds of elvers a dealer should legally have in his tanks.
As a result, Keliher says the state has uncovered only around four cases of illegal eels coming into Maine. "Fifty or 60 pounds were confiscated. But very little activity, compared to last year, on eels coming in from out of state."
Few people in the industry dispute Keliher's assesment. But according to the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, a review of records from the past few years show that Maine dealers have purchased many more eels than elver fishermen in the state have caught.
And earlier this month, it became clear that Maine has been working with the federal government to get to the bottom of these discrepencies.
"There's an ongoing investigation that spans from South Carolina to Maine, and the states have been cooperating with us." says Catherine Hibbard of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In early May, agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maine Marine Patrol raided a well-known elver dealer in Ellsworth as part of Operation Broken Glass. They inspected tanks used to hold live eels and searched through the dealer's truck, laptop computer, invoices, and nearby hotel room.
Jeffrey Pierce, with the Maine Elver Fishermen's Association, says he was briefed on the probe.
"We know there's a three-year investigation going on," he says. "It's targeted illegal poaching of eels on the eastern seaboard after the price fluctuation went up to over $2,000 a pound," he says. "There could be indictments handed down relatively soon. I think they're close to concluding their investigation, putting all the evidence together and taking it to a grand jury."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not comment on the probe's timeline, but said the U.S. Department of Justice will likely make an announcement if, or when, any indictments are handed down. Audiofile.