PORTLAND — Last March, a federal grand jury indicted Woolwich elver dealer William Sheldon, now 71, on seven charges relating to buying and selling illegally harvested juvenile eels over a four-year period beginning in 2011.
Last Thursday, Sheldon entered a guilty plea to one count of violating the federal Lacey Act, admitting to buying elvers from an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in April 2013 that had been illegally harvested in South Carolina and elsewhere. The charge carries a potential penalty of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release.
Under a plea agreement filed with the U.S. District Court last week, Sheldon accepted the fine and supervised release and waived his right to appeal any prison sentence of 30 months or less. He also agreed to forfeit the distinctive pickup truck he used for his business, Kennebec Glass Eels.
According to a statement of facts filed with the plea agreement, from 2011 to 2014, Sheldon bought and sold for export approximately 281 pounds of illegally harvested elvers worth some $545,000.
It is unclear whether Sheldon’s conviction on federal charges will have any impact on his Maine elver dealer license.
“At this time, the USFWS agents have not shared any state violations,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, in a Saturday email. “If they do, we will take action against those individuals charged.”
Sheldon’s indictments were the product of a long-running federal and multistate investigation into illegal elver harvesting that law enforcement authorities named “Operation Broken Glass.”
On April 30, 2014, federal wildlife agents and Maine Marine Patrol officers raided two rooms Sheldon rented at Jasper’s Motel on High Street and executed a search warrant seeking evidence that he had taken part in the purchase and sale of illegally harvested elvers through his company.
The elver fishery is a lucrative one. During the 2017 fishing season, Maine harvesters netted some 9,282 pounds valued at just over $12 million — about $1,302 per pound. In 2016, the Maine harvest was 9,400 pounds with an overall value of more than $13.4 million — an average of about $1,431 per pound.
In recent years, the price of legally harvested elvers has reached $2,500 per pound, or even more, on occasion. During the period covered by the indictment, according to the grand jury, the average price of elvers topped $1,500 per pound.
According to the conspiracy charges dropped by the U.S. attorney, Sheldon “knowingly purchased American eels” from several unnamed co-conspirators “knowing that the eels had been illegally harvested from the wild,” then he “transported” and sold most, if not all, the eels to a Pennsylvania seafood dealer, who exported them, and “submitted false records” to fisheries authorities in South Carolina and Maine.
The indictment did not implicate the unnamed seafood dealer in any illegal conduct.
The indictment also listed more than 30 specific acts on Sheldon’s part between January 2011 and January 2014 in which he allegedly bought illegally harvested elvers — sometimes from unlicensed fishermen and sometimes from undercover agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — knowing that the elvers had been illegally harvested in North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
Only Maine and South Carolina permit the commercial harvest of elvers. The South Carolina fishery is limited to a short stretch of a single river, and Sheldon allegedly bought elvers illegally harvested in that state.
Just a year ago, seven men pleaded guilty in the Federal District Court in Portland to trafficking in more than $1.9 million worth of elvers in violation of the Lacey Act.
Yarann Im, 34, a Portland elver dealer, admitted to illegally catching, buying and selling about 480 pounds of elvers valued at more that $540,000 in 2013 and 2014.
A few days later, three other Maine men, John Pinkham, 49, of Bath, Mark Green, 50, and Thomas Reno, 43, both of West Bath, and two Massachusetts men, Michael Bryant, 39, of West Yarmouth and George Anestis, 44, of Boxborough, each pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking elvers they knew had been caught illegally. Thomas Choi, 75, of Henderson, Md., pleaded guilty to exporting elvers that had been harvested illegally.
Bryant was sentenced in May to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and to pay $45,000 restitution and a $100 “special assessment.”
Im’s sentencing has yet to be scheduled.
The other defendants are scheduled to be sentenced in December.