ELLSWORTH, Maine — A year after federal officials executed a search warrant at a local motel, and a week after an affidavit filed in federal court was made public, no charges have been filed in connection with an elver poaching investigation.
William Sheldon, a prominent elver dealer from Woolwich, had rented two rooms at Jasper’s Motel on High Street during the 2014 elver season. Law enforcement officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were assisted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Maine Marine Patrol in searching Sheldon’s rented rooms on May 1, 2014.
Sheldon is accused of encouraging elver fishermen, some of whom were undercover federal agents, to fish in prohibited areas and of buying elvers that he knew had not been legally harvested.
The harvesting of elvers or “glass” eels, as juvenile American eels are known, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as soaring prices reportedly resulted in increased poaching of elvers, which are exported to Asia, raised in captivity and then sold into the region’s seafood market. In 2010, the total value of Maine’s statewide elver harvest was about half a million dollars but two years later it had risen to $40 million.
No information about the federal poaching investigation was released until last week, when an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor was unsealed.
The affidavit, filed on April 29, 2014, indicates that federal officials suspect that Sheldon “has purchased juvenile American eels, called glass eels or elvers, that were illegally obtained, possessed, and sold by individuals in South Carolina, Virginia, and Maine, that Sheldon has transported the elvers across state lines, and that he has resold the elvers for export out of the United States.”
The affidavit was filed as part of a request by federal law enforcement officials to seize printed and electronic records and images that may have been compiled or generated in conjunction with the alleged illegal activity.
Sheldon’s attorney, Walter McKee of Augusta, said Tuesday that no charges have been filed against his client, whose business is called Kennebec Glass Eels. But he added that, as far as he is aware, the investigation is still under way.
“It doesn’t mean there will be charges; it doesn’t mean there won’t be charges,” McKee said. “Federal investigations can take a long time.”
Federal officials connected with the case either declined to comment or could not be contacted Wednesday.
Sheldon still has active state licenses to harvest and to buy and sell elvers in Maine. During this year’s annual 10-week season, which typically runs from late March through the end of May, he has been buying elvers from a temporary location on Water Street in Ellsworth.
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Wednesday in an email that Commissioner Patrick Keliher “is continuing to review this case but has no other comment at this point.”
Reached on Wednesday by cellphone, Sheldon declined to comment on information in the affidavit or on the federal investigation.
Sheldon, who last month told the Bangor Daily News that eel catches in Asia this year have been “quite a bit smaller” than they were in 2014, said Wednesday that the price being offered to fishermen this year continues to be high. The prevailing price dealers are offering is around $2,200 per pound, he said — which is more than $1,000 higher than the average statewide price of $874 per pound last year.
The 42-page affidavit describes interactions Sheldon had with elver fishermen and federal agents posing as elver fishermen from 2012 through 2014.
The conversations, which occurred in South Carolina and Maine, allegedly included encouragement from Sheldon for the fishermen to harvest eels from prohibited areas or acknowledgement by Sheldon that he was buying elvers that had been harvested in prohibited areas.
South Carolina and Maine are the only two states that allow elver fishing, and Maine’s fishery is much larger than the one in the southern state. South Carolina issues only 10 licenses each year, while in Maine this year there are more than 1,000 active commercial licenses, more than half of which have been issued to members of the Passamaquoddy Indian tribe.
The federal investigation, which was initiated in 2011, also has produced information about alleged elver fishing in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia, all of which prohibit the activity.
The allegations described in the affidavit constitute violations of the federal Lacey Act, which prohibits interstate transport or transactions of any species of fish or wildlife illegally harvested or handled in any state. According to the document, anyone found guilty of knowingly violating the Lacey Act faces a potential fine of up to $250,000 and as many as five years in prison.