In this May 25, 2017, file photo, baby eels swim in a plastic bag after being caught near Brewer, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

A Woolwich man credited with playing a key role in establishing Maine’s lucrative baby eel fishery is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday morning in Portland for buying and selling more than half a million dollars worth of baby eels he knew had been caught illegally.

William “Bill” Sheldon, 71, is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Portland at 10 a.m. Thursday, to be sentenced for violating the federal Lacey Act by trafficking in poached baby eels, also known as elvers.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Sheldon is one of the most influential fishermen in Maine and has been described by national news media as “Maine’s elver kingpin” and “the grandfather of eel fishing.”

He is one of 21 men, 12 of whom live in Maine, charged in four states with participating in a scheme to illegally catch and sell elvers. In all, the defendants caught, sold and transported more than $5.25 million worth of poached elvers in nine East Coast states from 2011 through 2014, according to prosecutors.

Sheldon, contacted Wednesday by phone, declined to comment about his pending court appearance. He has been free on personal recognizance bail since he was indicted in March 2017.

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

Sheldon pleaded guilty last fall to one felony count of violating federal law by trafficking in elvers that had been caught in New Jersey and Virginia, where the practice is banned. Over the course of the 2011 through 2014 elver fishing seasons, Sheldon bought and sold 281 pounds of poached elvers, worth about $545,000, according to court documents.

Sheldon, described by federal prosecutors as “not just another elver dealer,” is said in court documents to have boasted to an undercover federal agent that in 2013 he legitimately bought and sold more than $5 million worth of juvenile eels. At the time, that was roughly 15 percent of the entire American juvenile eel market. Federal agents raided his Ellsworth motel room in 2014 as part of an investigation into interstate elver trafficking dubbed “Operation Broken Glass.”

The juvenile eels involved in the scheme were shipped live to Asia, where demand is high and imported eels are raised in aquaculture ponds and then harvested as adults for the global seafood market. Elver fishing in the United States is permitted only in Maine and South Carolina, which has a much smaller fishery than Maine’s.

[The mysterious elver, from Sargasso Sea to sushi]

With the conviction, Sheldon faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release after serving any prison time. As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, Sheldon waived his right to appeal any sentence of imprisonment of 30 months or less.

Last week, federal Judge Jon Levy signed an order requiring Sheldon to forfeit $33,200 in lieu of a 2012 Ford pickup truck that Sheldon used to transport illegally harvested elvers he bought from other fishermen. After federal agents searched the truck in the 2014 raid, Sheldon sold it to someone else. The license plates read, “EELWGN.”

Prosecutors say Sheldon not only bought illegally harvested elvers, but encouraged fishermen to catch them in places where the practice is not allowed. They have recommended to the judge that Sheldon be incarcerated for at least 18 months — which was the sentence imposed on another dealer last fall — and have suggested that a prison term between 24 and 30 months would be appropriate.

They wrote in court documents that Sheldon, who this spring has been managing an elver-buying business in Ellsworth, should have to surrender his elver licenses for the duration of any period of supervised release that may follow his prison sentence.

Sheldon’s defense attorney, Walter McKee, argued in court documents that his client’s right to fish for elvers should not be revoked as a result of his conviction. Sheldon already has voluntarily given up his dealer’s license, working for the past few years as a paid employee of Maine Eel Trade and Aquaculture, and has not been accused of violating any fishing laws, McKee said.

Sheldon is licensed by the state to personally catch up to 39.4 pounds of elvers each year, according to McKee. At the current prevailing prices of roughly $2,500 per pound, that amount would fetch Sheldon $98,000 in annual gross revenue.

“He should be allowed to fish for elvers using his Maine license, and continue to work as a salaried employee of META,” McKee wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Sheldon feels “a great deal of guilt” over the stress that his case has brought upon his family, which includes his wife, a grown daughter, and four grandchildren, according to McKee. Another of Sheldon’s daughters died in June of last year, he added.

Sheldon, who has been known to wear a fur coat while dealing with elver fishermen, is widely regarded as the founder of the fishery in Maine, which over the past seven years averaged more than $18 million in annual elver catch revenue.

According to McKee, his client graduated from the University of Maine in 1969 with a wildlife management degree and then, while working for the state Department of Marine Resources in the 1970s, wrote a paper on how to catch and transport live juvenile eels.

“At that time, little was known about fishing for elvers and there were almost no regulations,” McKee wrote.

The paper was well received by state regulators and fishermen alike, McKee added, and after a few years Sheldon decided to leave the agency and become a commercial fisherman. He later developed and patented the “Sheldon” trap for catching eels.

But federal prosecutors said greed eventually got the best of Sheldon. He was not satisfied with the “remarkable” share of Maine’s legal wholesale elver market that he developed, and instead, encouraged other fishermen to illegally harvest juvenile eels, they wrote in a separate sentencing memorandum.

Sheldon’s background in studying and establishing the fishery in Maine would suggest that he might have a greater appreciation than most people for the conservation restrictions placed on the fishery, but “the opposite appears to be true,” prosecutors said. “He squeezed the fishery for every extra dollar.”

Sheldon, they added, “broke the law simply to satisfy his greed.”

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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....