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Two Men Indicted for Illegally Trafficking American Eels

Joseph Kelley and James Lewis were each indicted in Newark, New Jersey, with crimes related to illegally trafficking juvenile American eels, also known as “elvers” or “glass eels.” A seven-count indictment was returned in mid-January, charging Kelley and Lewis with conspiracy to smuggle elvers and violate the Lacey Act.

The Indictment alleges that Kelley and Lewis knowingly harvested elvers illegally in the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts, and sold those elvers to dealers or exporters. Among those dealers is Thomas Choi, who pleaded guilty to related crimes in the District of Maine in 2016, and who was subsequently sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for those offenses.

The indictments were announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Acting Director Greg Sheehan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eels are highly valued in east Asia for human consumption. Historically, Japanese and European eels were harvested to meet this demand. However, overfishing has led to a decline in the population of these eels. As a result, harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the void resulting from the decreased number of Japanese and European eels. Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the United States in all but two states: Maine and South Carolina. Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities.

These indictments were the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels. To date, the investigation has resulted in two other indictments, as well as guilty pleas for nineteen other individuals in Maine, Virginia, and South Carolina. These defendants combined have admitted to illegally trafficking more than $4.5 million worth of elvers.

Operation Broken Glass was conducted by USFWS and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section in collaboration with the Maine Marine Patrol, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Bureau of Law Enforcement, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Conservation Police, Virginia Marine Resources Commission Police, USFWS Refuge Law Enforcement, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, Massachusetts Environmental Police, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Law Enforcement, New York State Environmental Conservation Police, New Hampshire Fish and Game Division of Law Enforcement, Maryland Natural Resources Police, North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission Division of Law Enforcement, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Yarmouth, Massachusetts Division of Natural Resources, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Police Department and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The government is represented by Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorneys Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller.