PORTLAND — Elver buyer William Sheldon, of Woolwich, faces a seven-count federal indictment on charges alleging he dealt in illegally harvested juvenile eels over a four-year period beginning in 2011.
Sitting in Portland, a grand jury on March 1 charged Sheldon with one count of conspiracy, three counts of illegal trafficking in wildlife and three counts of “false labeling” under the federal Lacey Act. If convicted, Sheldon faces up to five years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000 on each count.
On Monday, Augusta attorney Walter McKee said his client would enter not guilty pleas at his appearance before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge John H. Rich III currently scheduled for March 30.
At the earliest, McKee said, no trial can be expected before the end of 2017. To date, there have been no negotiations regarding a possible plea agreement and McKee would not say whether one was likely before reviewing discovery material federal prosecutors are scheduled to deliver this month.
“It’s tough to say without looking at the reports,” McKee said. “It’s like a doctor waiting for a diagnosis and then making a plan of treatment.”
The indictments arise out of a long-running federal and multistate investigation into illegal elver harvesting — called “Operation Broken Glass.” On April 30, 2014, federal wildlife agents and Maine Marine Patrol officers raided two rooms at Jasper’s Motel on High Street rented by Sheldon to execute a search warrant looking for evidence that he had taken part in the purchase and sale of illegally harvested elvers through his company Kennebec Glass Eels.
The elver fishery is a lucrative one. Last year, Maine harvesters netted 9,400 pounds of elvers with an overall value of more than $13.4 million — an average of about $1,431 per pound. In recent years, the price of elvers has topped $2,500 per pound on occasion. During the period covered by the indictment, according to the grand jury, the average price of elvers topped $1,500 per pound.
According to the conspiracy indictment, Sheldon “knowingly purchased American eels” from several unnamed co-conspirators “knowing that the eels had been illegally harvested from the wild,” then “transported” and sold most, if not all, the eels to a Pennsylvania seafood dealer, who exported them, and “submitted false records” to fisheries authorities in South Carolina and Maine.
The indictment does not implicate the unnamed seafood dealer in any illegal conduct.
The indictment also lists 34 specific acts on Sheldon’s part between January 2011 and January 2014 in which he allegedly bought illegally harvested elvers — sometimes from unlicensed fishermen and on several occasions from undercover agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — knowing that the elvers had been illegally harvested in states including North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
Only Maine and South Carolina permit the commercial harvest of elvers. The South Carolina fishery is limited to a short stretch of a single river and Sheldon allegedly bought elvers illegally harvested in that state.
The three Lacey Act trafficking counts are based on allegations that, in April 2013, Sheldon “knowingly engaged and attempted to engage in conduct involving the purchase and sale of fish…by knowingly receiving, acquiring, purchasing and transporting” eels in interstate commerce, knowing that they were harvested in violation of the laws of states including New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts.
The three Lacey Act “false labeling” counts are based on allegedly filing false reports with the Maine Department of Resources to conceal the origin of illegally harvested elvers.
The indictment came as no surprise to Sheldon.
In April 2015, he told The Ellsworth American, “I haven’t been charged. I haven’t been indicted, but I fully expect to be, knowing that I am part of an East Coast elver investigation.”
Reached on Monday, Sheldon said he could not comment on his indictment.
According to McKee, he is not aware of any other investigation of the elver trade nor does he know of any other state or federal grand jury that might be exploring the issue.
Seven “related cases” are listed on the docket sheet filed with Sheldon’s indictment in the federal District Court in Portland. Federal prosecutors brought all of those cases by an information, similar to a complaint, rather than by an indictment. In each case the defendant has entered a guilty plea as part of an agreement with prosecutors calling for prison terms ranging from as little as 14 months for an alleged illegal harvester to as long as 37 months for an individual alleged to have exported more than $1 million worth of illegally harvested elvers.