Richard D. Austin of Waldoboro Credit: Photo courtesy of Richard D. Austin

A Waldoboro man has been sentenced in federal court to serve two years in prison for his role in an East Coast scheme that trafficked in millions of dollars in poached baby eels.

Richard D. Austin, 40, pleaded guilty in April to violating the federal Lacey Act by trafficking in baby eels, or elvers. He was accused of illegally harvesting roughly $190,000 worth of elvers in Massachusetts and Virginia from 2013 to 2015 and of selling the poached elvers to dealers in Illinois and New York.

Austin is the first to be sentenced to prison time of 18 men charged as a result of the so-called “Operation Broken Glass” federal investigation. All 18 men have pleaded guilty in the scheme but only five have been sentenced so far.

[How Maine came to play a central role in an international eel smuggling scheme]

Appearing Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Norfolk, Virginia, Austin was ordered to report to federal officials to begin serving his sentence on Dec. 11 at a prison not yet selected. He also was ordered to serve three years of supervised release after he completes his prison term. He was ordered to pay a special assessment off $100 but was not ordered to pay any fines or restitution.

Austin also was charged in state court in New York with illegal commercialization of protected wildlife, or eels, and in 2015 pleaded guilty to that misdemeanor offense. In that case, he was ordered to forfeit $15,000 to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Austin said Thursday that he doesn’t think it is fair that others who have been sentenced in the scheme have not received prison time, but he added that he does deserve to go to prison. He says he abused opiates for years but has been clean for two years now.

“The bottom line is I deserve to be punished for it,” Austin said, adding that he has served time in prison in the 1990s and 2000s for burglary and for possessing a firearm while a convicted felon. “Greed has driven me. If you have $100,000, you want $200,000.”

Austin said there still is a strong black market for poached eels, but he has no desire to break the law any more. A licensed clam digger, he plans to spend time with his wife, 11 year-old daughter and 21 year-old son before he has to start serving his prison sentence.

“It’s never too late to change,” Austin said. “I think I’ve got my head screwed on the right way this time.”

Austin is one of nine men from Maine, along with nine men from other states, to face federal charges of trafficking in poached eels along the East Coast earlier this decade. All together, the men are accused of having bought and sold roughly between $3 million and $6 million worth of illegally harvested elvers.

In the scheme, men caught the baby eels in states where the practice is prohibited and then tried to pass them off as having been caught legally. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states with legal elver fisheries, and Maine’s fishery is much larger than South Carolina’s.

The vast majority of baby eels caught in the U.S., legally or illegally, are shipped to the Far East where they are then raised to maturity in aquaculture ponds for the region’s seafood market. The trafficking scheme blossomed earlier this decade after Europe banned the export of elvers and demand for American eels soared, pushing the price offered to fishermen from less than $200 a pound to more than $1,500 per pound.

Of the four other men who have been sentenced so far as a result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigation, each has been ordered to serve only probation and, in some cases, to pay restitution.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....