A Candia man has been cited by Maine's Marine Patrol for the illegal possession of 41 pounds of baby eels or "elvers," which sell for up to $2,000 a pound in Asia.
"This is a big one," Maine Marine Resources Director of Communications Jeff Nichols said of the arrest of Phillip Parker, 41. "It's the biggest in the history of the fishery, which goes back to the 1970s."
Demand for American elvers has skyrocketed since Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami and restrictions placed on European elver exports. They are often sold to Chinese or South Korean buyers, who rear them to adulthood and sell them for food.
Parker was issued a summons on April 3 after an investigation discovered that he intended to sell the elvers without a license. He is to appear before the Newport District Court May 29. He faces up to $2,000 in fines.
"This summons highlights for us the need for stronger laws for violations relative to the fishery," said Nichols. "There's an incredible amount of money to be made in this fishery, and the fines that are currently in place often don't amount to one pound of elvers because the fines are currently up to $2,000, and for somebody that's harvesting a lot more than that in the course of a day, the potential of a fine that doesn't even go up to $2,000 isn't a significant deterrent."
A law is being considered in the Maine legislature that would make illegal elver possession a criminal offense, rather than a civil violation, and make the current $2,000 fine mandatory.
Maine officials have cited Parker's case as an argument for the new law. Officials said he is thought to have brought the eels into Maine from another state.
Marine Patrol sold the elvers confiscated from Parker for more than $60,000. Nichols said the money will be held pending the outcome of the case. Officers also seized Parker's 1996 Chevy 1500 truck and a U-Haul trailer, as well as equipment for the storage and transportation of live elvers.
Maine is among two states in the country, along with South Carolina, that have an elver fishery.
In 2012, 18,000 pounds of elvers was hauled, pulling in a total around $38 million.
With such profits to be made, officials said, rampant poaching has resulted, officials said. Maine Marine Patrol recorded over 300 documented violations in 2012.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering listing the species as endangered, which could result in the banning of all American eel fisheries.