Three individuals pleaded guilty in federal district court in Charleston, South Carolina, to trafficking more than $740,000 worth of juvenile American eels aka “elvers” or “glass eels,” in violation of the Lacey Act. Harry Wertan, Jr., Mark Weihe and Jay James each pleaded guilty to selling or transporting elvers in interstate commerce, which they had harvested illegally, or knew had been harvested illegally, in South Carolina.
The pleas 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 guilty pleas for ten individuals whose
combined conduct resulted in the illegal trafficking of more than $2.6
million worth of elvers.
The guilty pleas were announced today by Assistant Attorney General
John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural
Resources Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake for the District of
South Carolina, and Director Dan Ashe of the USFWS.
“We will not allow the rivers of the United States to be the poaching
grounds for international seafood markets,” said Assistant Attorney
General Cruden. “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.”
“This case underscores the role U.S. citizens often play in wildlife
trafficking and demonstrates that this deadly trade does not solely
impact large, charismatic mammals in distant countries,” said Director
Dan Ashe for USFWS. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement
agents work tirelessly to save wildlife from the threat traffickers pose
here at home, and together with the Department of Justice, bring these
individuals to justice for their illegal activities.”
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
American eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the North
Atlantic Ocean bounded on all sides by ocean currents. They then travel
as larvae from the Sargasso to the coastal waters of the eastern United
States, where they enter a juvenile or elver stage, swim upriver and
grow to adulthood in fresh water. Elvers are exported for aquaculture
in east Asia, where they are raised to adult size and sold for food.
Harvesters and exporters of American eels in the United States can sell
elvers to east Asia for more than $2000 per pound.
Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited
in the United States in all but three states: Maine, South Carolina and
Florida. Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries,
requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of
harvested eels to state authorities. Although Florida does not have
specific elver-related regulations, the limited population of elvers in
Florida waters makes commercial eel fishing impossible.
“This investigation is an outstanding example of the dedication and
ingenuity shown by multiple agencies working together to expose and
curtail the illegal trade of American eels,” said Special
Agent-in-Charge Luis Santiago Southeast Region for USFWS. “Today’s pleas
are a success in our collective efforts to conserve and protect an
important American fishery.”
“Today’s pleas in the illegal trade of American Eels are a tremendous
step in preserving this important fishery,” said Colonel Chisolm
Frampton for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Law
Enforcement Division. “A multitude of state and federal agencies did
outstanding work to bring this case to successful conclusion.”
The offenses in the case are felonies under the Lacey Act, each
carrying a maximum penalty of five years’ incarceration, a fine of up to
$250,000 or up to twice the gross pecuniary gain or loss, or both.
Operation Broken Glass was conducted by the 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
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