Quest for eel quota continued as poachers raided fishery

By on January 11, 2018

The eels can fetch up to $2,000 a pound, (Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

While former state Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniel continued to push for a share of the federal glass eel quota, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American Eel Management Board was concerned about illegal activities in the fishery and whether it could be adequately monitored by state law enforcement in North Carolina.

Second of three parts

Federal and state law enforcement officials had an increasingly difficult time as the fishery became more lucrative. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Operation Broken Glass” began cracking the door on the illicit trade that, when described, sounds like a B movie.

The harvest and export of glass eels is limited to Maine and South Carolina, but the prized-sized fish are poached in other states and sold to dealers who export them overseas.

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Much of the species’ life history is unknown and there has never been a successful attempt to breed them in captivity. Glass eels are juveniles that are transparent except for the spine and eyes.

Prices in Maine have topped more than $2,000 per pound, luring fishermen into poaching.

Operation Broken Glass has led to more than a dozen cases in federal court in the past year and more may reach the docket.

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The primary charge in the cases is violation of the federal Lacey Act, which prohibits the import, export, sale, acquiring, or purchasing fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of U.S. or Indian law, or in interstate or foreign commerce.

One case file refers to a North Carolina fisherman but does not name him.

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Fishermen and dealers are frequently armed to protect themselves from thieves trying to steal the glass eels or take the large amount of cash flowing from dealers to fishermen.

Some reports indicate that it was not unusual for dealers to have up to a quarter of a million dollars in cash on them when they meet the poachers alongside country roads, in motels and other locations where they thought they would not be observed.

It didn’t take long before organized crime filtered into the picture, raising more red flags for law enforcement.

Federal authorities grappled with poachers and crooked dealers. Meanwhile, the quest in North Carolina to obtain a share of the glass eel quota for American Eel Farm, owned by Rick Allyn in Jones County, continued. Allyn wanted permission to harvest glass eels in North Carolina to stock an aqua farm.

After a request for a coastwide quota was snubbed in 2013, Daniel returned to the board and requested a 750- pound share for Allyn, whom he said wanted to raise the glass eels to marketable size and sell as bait. On at least two occasions, AEMB members questioned how it was possible to make a profit holding the eels to maturity. In both instances, the response was that it wasn’t the board’s place to question Allyn’s business plan.

Then Allyn changed his request to include being allowed to export the glass eels after holding them just two months. The board’s response was an adamant no.

Although Daniel continued to press the issue for four years, during which DMF staff worked to try to find solutions to address AEMB’s expressed concerns, DMF emails and other documents show that Allyn was involving elected officials.

Daniel was routinely questioned by legislators and then-Department of Environmental Quality officials about why he was unable to satisfy Allyn’s request.

In an October 2015 email, Tom Reeder, then assistant secretary of environment at the Department of Environmental Quality, told Daniel that Allyn had visited him and said that his consultant was waiting to hear from Daniel about what information he needed to get to him so that it could be presented to the ASMFC in December.

Reeder’s email was copied to DEQ Secretary Donald Vandervarrt, Deputy Secretary John Evans and other DEQ staff. None of the staff involved are currently with the agency except Evans, who is on administrative leave.

Daniel replied to Reeder that he told Dick Stone, Allyn’s fisheries consultant and science adviser, that the request had to go through a review process and he would try to get an expedited hearing but it would probably be in February 2016. He wrote that he also told Stone that they may have to file to obtain approval for 2017. “ I know this is not what he wants but is a possibility,” he noted.

In a second email response to Reeder, Daniel wrote, “Based on history and direct conversations with Mr. Allyn for 3 years, I hope he understood this but want to make certain you all do. If unsuccessful, he will come back and say we told him that he would get a permit in February and that was simply not the case.”

State Sen. Harry Brown, R-Jones,  was often copied on emails and some were sent in response to questions from Brown’s office. The senator received at least one campaign donation of $500 from Allyn. Requests for comment were not answered.

Also copied on emails and sometimes the primary recipient of the communication was Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. Steinburg was appointed by former Gov. Pat McCrory to represent the state on the ASMFC and voted for granting the quota. Requests for comment from Steinurg were not answered.

In February 2016, the AEMB granted a 200-pound quota for harvest-only which allowed the state to issue a Scientific Collection permit intended to produce data on the species.

But that wasn’t the end of the issue or of the involvement of state elected officials.

See part 3 to learn what steps have been taken by politicians that makes monitoring the facility substantially more difficult.

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