Baby eels, also known as elvers, squirm in a bucket outside the Delaware Valley Fish Company in Portland in this 2014 file photo. Earlier this month, a man from Brooklyn, N.Y., who had a Maine elver dealer’s license became the latest person to be sentenced as a result of a multi-state federal investigation into illegal elver trafficking.

A New York man who used a Maine elver dealer’s license to help him traffic in $150,000 worth of illegally caught baby eels has been sentenced to serve 18 months in federal prison.

Tommy Water Zhou, 43, of Brooklyn, has until Dec. 18 to turn himself in and begin serving his sentence, according to federal court documents.

Zhou obtained a permit in Maine in 2013 that allowed him to buy and sell elvers caught in Maine, according to the documents. Over the course of three years he used it instead to traffic in $150,000 worth of elvers he knew had been caught in Virginia, where the practice is prohibited.

Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, presiding in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, on Nov. 3 also ordered Zhou to serve three years of supervised release after his imprisonment. Zhou, who in April pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act by trafficking in protected wildlife, was not ordered to pay any fines or restitution.

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

Zhou is one of 18 men facing federal charges in three different states as a result of Operation Broken Glass, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sting operation aimed at illegal trafficking in baby eels, also known as elvers. Thirteen of the men have been charged in federal court in Maine.

Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that permit the harvest of elvers. The fishery in Maine — where roughly 1,000 people have elver licenses and the annual landings value over the past six years has averaged nearly $20 million — is much larger than the one in South Carolina.

A vast majority of baby eels caught on the East Coast are shipped to Asia, where they are grown to harvest size in aquaculture ponds and then sold into the region’s huge seafood market.

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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....