Brooklyn seafood dealer guilty of trafficking American eels to Asia
AN ASIAN/AMERICAN businessman pleaded guilty to illegally selling or purchasing American eels.
American eels are in danger of being overfished. Eels are considered a delicacy in Asian cuisines.
Tommy Water Zhou pled guilty April 5 in federal district court in Norfolk, Virginia, to trafficking more than $150,361 worth of juvenile American eels, aka “elvers” or “glass eels,” in violation of the Lacey Act.
Zhou used his Brooklyn-based seafood distribution business as a cover for his illegal activities, according to court documents.
“We will not allow illegal wildlife traffickers to undermine managed fish species like the American eel,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood. “In this operation, we are actively partnering with states all along the East Coast to enforce the law and protect our nation's waterways from further exploitation.”
Eels are highly valued in east Asia for human consumption. Historically, Japanese and European eels were harvested to meet this demand; however, overfishing has led to a decline in the population of these eels. As a result, harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the void resulting from the decreased number of Japanese and European eels.
Harvesters and exporters of American eels in the U.S. can sell elvers to east Asia for more than $2000 per pound. The eels can grow up to 4 feet long and weigh up to 17 pounds.
Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the U.S. in all but two states: Maine and South Carolina. Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities.
The offense in this case is a felony under the Lacey Act, each carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 or up to twice the gross pecuniary gain or loss, or both.
Sentencing is set for July 12.
This plea was the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels. To date, the investigation has resulted in guilty pleas for eleven individuals whose combined conduct resulted in the illegal trafficking of more than $2.75 million worth of elvers.
“Illegal harvesting and trafficking of wildlife represents a dire threat to our critical ecosystems,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente.