April 10, 2017 — A massive, years-long undercover operation has led to arrests and guilty pleas up and down the East Coast of poachers and traffickers who dealt in a slippery, squiggly and valuable commodity: baby eels.
William Sheldon, who runs one of the biggest and oldest eel businesses in Maine, might be forced to give up his truck with the license plate “EELWGN.” In federal court in Virginia this month, a Brooklyn seafood dealer named Tommy Zhou became the eleventh person to plead guilty to eel trafficking as part of the sweeping federal investigation known as “Operation Broken Glass.” Zhou declined to comment.
“I’m kind of chuckling now as more and more faces show up in the paper,” said Tim Sheehan, who runs a seafood company so far north in Maine it’s nearly in Canada. “We could be the last dealer standing.”
Maine is home to the only major legal market in the United States for baby eels, known as glass eels or elvers. (There is also a small market in South Carolina.) But sky-high prices for the little wrigglers has led to widespread poaching, as elvers caught farther south are smuggled north. Tracking illegal eels is a challenge.
“Fishermen can sell eels to dealers who can then sell eel to anybody,” said Toni Kerns, director of the Interstate Fisheries Management Program, a part of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission is a coastal-state compact that sets eel regulations.