A Portland man waived his right to a trial and pleaded guilty Tuesday to illegally trafficking hundreds of pounds of elvers and exporting them to foreign countries.

Yarann Im, 34, through his attorney, public defender David R. Beneman, entered the guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Portland. He could be sentenced to as many as five years in prison and be fined up to $100,000, according to court documents.

Beneman said he could not comment on his client’s case, but court documents filed by federal prosecutors reveal that Im was in charge of an illegal operation that operated elver storage facilities in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, and exported the valuable juvenile eels to Canada and Asia.

Federal prosecutors said in court documents that if the case had gone to trial, they would have proved that Im bought and sold about 480 pounds of elvers that were illegally caught in 2013 and 2014.

“The parties agree that the total fair market value for these illegally harvested elvers is approximately $541,292,” the prosecution said in court documents.

Federal officials say elvers fetch the highest prices when exported live to Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries.

“In the United States, dealers pay as much as $2,000 per pound for live elvers destined for export,” the prosecution said.

South Carolina and Maine are the only states that allow commercial harvesting of elvers.

According to prosecutors, Im established the Maine Eel Co. LLC in 2012 in Portland. His business engaged in the purchase and sale of American eels. In 2013, he obtained a license to harvest eels from Florida.

“The purpose of this license was to conceal the origins of illegally harvested elvers by claiming they had been legally harvested in Florida (where in reality, there is no viable commercial elver fishery),” the prosecution said in court documents.

The federal court documents describe an operation in which Im went to locations along the East Coast where he bought elvers several times from an undercover officer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, knowing that the elvers had been illegally harvested in Virginia, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Those elvers were then sold to importers in Hong Kong and British Columbia.


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