Eel king gets shackles: Maine man sentenced for elver trafficking

A Maine man credited with establishing the state’s booming elver fishery was sentenced to a short stint in prison last week for his involvement in an illegal elver trafficking ring.

William “Bill” Sheldon, 71, who has been called “grandfather of eel fishing” and “Maine’s elver kingpin,” was sentenced to six months of prison and three years of supervised release at a U.S. District Court in Portland, Maine. Sheldon was also ordered to pay a fine of $10,000, forfeit $33,200 in lieu of a truck he used during the crime and was ordered not to possess a license to purchase or export elvers, or baby eels.

The elver poaching ring was made up of 21 fishermen along the East Coast who made an estimated $5 million selling elvers to Asia on the black market. According to investigators, these fishermen netted elvers along the Atlantic seaboard in states where the fishery is banned and funneled them through Maine and South Carolina.

There are approximately 1,000 elver harvesters in Maine, where just over 5,046.228 pounds with a reported value of $13,087,246 had been harvested by the end of April. South Carolina issues only 10 licenses each year and has much smaller harvests.

On the same day as Sheldon’s sentencing, accomplice Timothy Lewis also received a sentence of six months in prison with three years supervised release and a $2,500 fine. He was also banned from the fishery. Another accomplice, Thomas Reno, was sentenced to one year of probation.

The sentences “establish that the United States will not tolerate interstate and international transactions involving illegally taken wildlife,” said acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood in a press release. “Despite their best efforts to evade law enforcement, these defendants were ultimately brought to justice, and we are very proud to have worked with our partners at the federal, state and local level to achieve this result.”

The other 18 harvesters were tried last year. Two men, Tommy Zhou, operator of Wilson Group Sea Trading in New York, and Richard D. Austin, a licensed clam digger in Waldoboro, Maine, received prison sentences.

Zhou told undercover U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officers investigating the ring in Operation Broken Glass that he was willing to spend $200,000 to kill anyone who was a part of the scheme who betrayed him, reported the Virginian-Pilot this fall.

About the author

Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill is associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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