In this May 15, 2021, file photo, baby eels, also known as elvers, swim in a tank after being caught in the Penobscot River in Brewer. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

NEW YORK — The federal government has indicted a seafood distributor and eight of its employees and associates on charges of smuggling valuable eels.

The company, American Eel Depot of Totowa, New Jersey, is the biggest importer and wholesale distributor of eel meat in the country. The Justice Department said on April 29 that the defendants in the case conspired to unlawfully smuggle large numbers of baby European eels out of Europe to a factory in China.

The department said the eels were reared to maturity, slaughtered and processed for shipping to the U.S. for sale as sushi. The defendants in the case are charged with violating the Lacey Act, which bans illegal trafficking in wildlife, and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act, the department said.

American Eel Depot did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday. The eight employees and associates are located in New York City, China and Hong Kong.

Baby eels are among the most lucrative fish species in the seafood world. The U.S. fishery for American eels is based almost entirely in Maine. The baby eels are often worth more than $2,000 per pound at the docks.