A Department of Justice press release from Friday detailed the indictment of defendants who allegedly smuggled European eels into the country to be sold as sushi, constituting a violation of the Lacey Act and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act. The defendants include a major seafood distributor, American Eel Depot Corporation, and eight of its employees.
The Environment and Natural Resources Division, Environmental Crimes Section unsealed the indictment, which alleged that the defendants smuggled the valuable imperiled eels. American Eel Depot is described in the press release as “the largest importer and wholesale distributor of eel meat in the United States.”
Te black market for eels is one of the biggest international wildlife trafficking problems, per the agency. In recent years, eel trafficking has allegedly shifted from a focus on smuggling American eels to smuggling European eels, which are under a greater threat of extinction, according to the DOJ. Since 2010, it has been illegal to export European eels out of any country that is a member of the European Union, and the eels are also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species wildlife protection treaty and the Endangered Species Act.
The defendants reportedly conspired to smuggle baby European eels out of Europe and send them to an eel-rearing factory in China, where they would be slaughtered and sent to the U.S. to be sold as sushi products. Over a period of four years, the complaint explains that the defendants “imported approximately 138 ocean containers full of eel meat into the United States, with a market value exceeding $160 million.
The scheme was discovered when six containers were seized by the government that were labeled American eel in an attempt to disguise the fact that they were illegally smuggled European eels.
The assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division explained that the department “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.”
If the individual defendants are convicted, they will each face up to 20 years in prison as well as a $250,000 fine. Business organization will face a fine of $500,000 or twice the financial gain to the defendant or twice the financial loss to another, whichever amount is greater.