For years, the feds have been working on an investigation they call “Operation Broken Glass,” a massive, multi-pronged assault on the criminal underworld spanning 12 states up and down the East Coast. Authorities have set their sights on more than a dozen suspects, but now, they’ve singled out a few key culprits: two guys in Maine, suspected of engaging in the lucrative, shady business of eel smuggling.
Whereas some thieves focus on snatching giant gold coins or the remains of dead auto legends, others set their sights on the highly profitable, questionably electric, certainly slimy world of illicit baby eel trading. And according to the Department of Justice, 71-year-old William Sheldon and 46-year-old Timothy Lewis were looking to get a piece of the action.
The DOJ claims Sheldon and Lewis—along with eleven other defendants the US Fish and Wildlife Service wrangled up—were trafficking more than $2.75 million worth of baby eels.
Baby eels, or “elvers,” can fetch up to $2,000 per pound in East Asia, where they’re prized as a culinary delicacy. After Japanese and European eels fell victim to overfishing, they become a rarity in the East. Harvesters turned to the American eel to fill the void.
What’s still not clear, though, is just how one goes about stealing a baby eel and transporting it halfway across the globe, who is actually buying these eels, and where—if anywhere—a physical black market for eels exists. One thing’s for sure: The feds take that shit seriously. Sheldon and Lewis could face up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 for their alleged fish crime.
“We will not allow the rivers of the United States to be the poaching grounds for international seafood markets,” John Cruden, the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement. “The American eel is an important, but limited natural and economic resource that must be protected. Trafficking only undercuts the toil and honest efforts of those who obey the law.”