Baby eels swim in a bucket after being caught near Brewer, May 25, 2017. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

In the final sentencing in Maine that resulted from an East Coast wildlife trafficking sting operation, a West Bath man has been ordered to serve a year of probation and to pay a $15,000 fine.

Albert Cray, 40, who was sentenced last week in federal court in Portland, is the 14th person to be charged in Maine and the 12th Mainer to be charged as a result of Operation Broken Glass, an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service into an illegal scheme to harvest and traffick in baby eels, which sell for thousands of dollar per pound. Overall, 21 men have been charged with trafficking in baby eels, also known as elvers, in four different East Coast states.

Cray pleaded guilty last December to helping to catch approximately 140 pounds worth of baby eels in March 2013 in New Jersey, where the practice is banned. The estimated value of the eels caught and sold by Cray and other defendants is estimated to be $253,000.

The eels 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.

Of the 21 men charged in the scheme, which resulted in the illegal harvest and sale of more than $5 million in baby eels, all but two have pled guilty and been sentenced, with punishments as high as two years in federal prison or restitution orders of more than $100,000.

Maine residents Joseph Kelley of Woolwich and James Lewis of West Bath each were indicted in February in federal court in Camden, New Jersey, and pleaded not guilty the following month. Oral arguments in their case are scheduled to be heard in that court in August.

Maine adopted strict elver fishing regulations in 2014 in order to discourage poaching, but still is trying to combat illegal activity in the fishery.

Last month, the state’s Department of Marine Resources abruptly canceled the final few weeks of the season — one of the most lucrative years ever for Maine’s multi-million dollar elver fishery — after law enforcement officials discovered that some licensed dealers had participated in illegal, under-the-table cash transactions for unreported eels.

Formal charges have yet to be filed against the people suspected of being involved in the latest elver poaching scheme, state officials have said.

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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....