A Maine fisherman who played a key role in the rise of the state’s baby eel fishery was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland for illegally poaching and trafficking juvenile American eels – also known as elvers.

William Sheldon, 71, of Woolwich was sentenced to six months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.

Sheldon, a former employee with the state Department of Marine Resources, according to the Bangor Daily News, wrote a paper on elver fishing in 1974, and became one of the state’s first elver dealers.

Over time, his reputation grew and several national publications, including National Geographic and Buzzfeed, referred to him in news articles as “Maine’s elver kingpin” and the “grandfather of eel fishing.”

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, according to a news release from Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood.

“Today’s sentences establish that the United States will not tolerate interstate and international transactions involving illegally taken wildlife,” Wood said.

Sheldon pleaded guilty last fall to a felony count that said he trafficked in baby eels caught in New Jersey and Virginia. Maine and South Carolina are the only states in the country where it’s legal to fish for baby eels.

He’s one of 21 men charged with catching, selling and transporting more than $5 million worth of poached elvers.

Eels are a highly valued delicacy in east Asia. Historically, Japanese and European eels were harvested to meet this demand, but overfishing led to a decline in the eel population. Harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the void.

Harvesters and exporters of American eels in the United States can sell elvers for more than $2,000 a pound in east Asia, where they are raised to maturity and sold. Shelden was sentenced as a result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction federal investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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