The U.S. Justice Department indicted major U.S. eel importer American Eel Depot and eight employees and associates with trafficking endangered eels.
The Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Environmental Crimes Section said in a press release that Totowa, New Jersey, U.S.A.-based American Eel Depot Corporation, the largest U.S. importer of eel meat, conspired with several individuals to unlawfully smuggle large quantities of live baby European eels out of Europe to its eel-rearing factory in China.
The individuals involved in the case include: Liang Chen, aka Jackie, of Fujian, China; Yundong Wei of Fuzhou, China; Xiajuan Huang Zhouyi of Changle, China; Hong Lee, a.k.a. John, of Yuen Long, Hong Kong; Yi Rui Huang, a.k.a Ricky, of Oakland Gardens, New York; Fen Liu, a.k.a Emily, of Oakland Gardens, New York; Chao Jin Shi, a.k.a Kevin, of Flushing, New York; and Guo Tuan Zhou, a.k.a Jason, of Woodhaven, New York.
After rearing the baby eels to maturity, workers at the facility in China slaughtered and processed the eels for shipping to the U.S to be sold as sushi products, the Justice Department said.
Over a four-year period, the defendants imported around 138 ocean containers full of eel meat into the U.S., with a market value exceeding USD 160 million (EUR 152 million), according to the indictment.
Six containers seized by the government contained all or mostly European eel, mislabeled as American eel to avoid detection from law-enforcement authorities. “American eel fishing is highly regulated but still lawful in limited quantities in some areas. As alleged in the indictment, the defendants knew the eels’ true species, knew what they were doing was unlawful, and intentionally lied to U.S. authorities to conceal the illegalities and avoid detection,” the Justice Department said.
Following a crackdown on the poaching and smuggling of American eels, eel traffickers shifted their efforts to European eels, a species facing an even greater threat of extinction, according to the Justice Department.
It has been illegal since 2010 to export European eels out of any European Union member-country, the government noted, and European eels are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) wildlife protection treaty, which is enforced in the U.S. through the Endangered Species Act.
“This case demonstrates the effectiveness and importance of the Endangered Species Act in cracking down on the international trafficking of protected wildlife,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim with the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said. “We will not allow United States-based businesses and their executives and associates to cause – and profit off of – the systemic decline of the world’s protected aquatic species.”
The investigation highlights the global trade pressures facing freshwater eels, and the American government’s “commitment to stand as a united front with our international partners in protecting both foreign and domestic species,” Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement said.
“This indictment sends a clear message to individuals and corporations that if they unlawfully profit and decimate wildlife, domestically or abroad, investigators will work tirelessly to seek justice,” Grace said.
If convicted, each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of USD 250,000 (EUR 238,000) for individual defendants or USD 500,000 (EUR 475,000) for business organizations, or twice the financial gain to the defendant or twice the financial loss to another, whichever is greater.
Numerous illegal eel-trading operations have been uncovered in recent years, including an elver-smuggling operation in the U.S. state of Maine in 2016, an operation run by a self-proclaimed “elver kingpin” in 2018, and a trafficking ring run through Spain, the U.K., and Hong Kong in 2020.
Photo courtesy of American Eel Depot