Hunting News

Friday, January 19, 2018

Two Men Indicted for Illegally Trafficking American Eels

Joseph Kelley and James Lewis were each indicted in Newark, New Jersey, with crimes related to illegally trafficking juvenile American eels, also known as “elvers” or “glass eels.”  A seven-count indictment was returned on Jan. 18, 2018, charging Kelley and Lewis with conspiracy to smuggle elvers and violate the Lacey Act.

The Indictment alleges that Kelley and Lewis knowingly harvested elvers illegally in the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts, and sold those elvers to dealers or exporters. Among those dealers is Thomas Choi, who pleaded guilty to related crimes in the District of Maine in 2016, and who was subsequently sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for those offenses.

The indictments were announced today by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Acting Director Greg Sheehan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Eels are highly valued in east Asia for human consumption.  Historically, Japanese and European eels were harvested to meet this demand. However, overfishing has led to a decline in the population of these eels.  As a result, harvesters have turned to the American eel to fill the void resulting from the decreased number of Japanese and European eels.  Because of the threat of overfishing, elver harvesting is prohibited in the United States in all but two states: Maine and South Carolina.  Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate elver fisheries, requiring that individuals be licensed and report all quantities of harvested eels to state authorities. 

These indictments were the result of “Operation Broken Glass,” a multi-jurisdiction, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation into the illegal trafficking of American eels.  To date, the investigation has resulted in two other indictments, as well as guilty pleas for nineteen other individuals in Maine, Virginia, and South Carolina.  These defendants combined have admitted to illegally trafficking more than $4.5 million worth of elvers.

Operation Broken Glass was conducted by USFWS and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section in collaboration with the Maine Marine Patrol, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Bureau of Law Enforcement, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Conservation Police, Virginia Marine Resources Commission Police, USFWS Refuge Law Enforcement, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, Massachusetts Environmental Police, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Law Enforcement, New York State Environmental Conservation Police, New Hampshire Fish and Game Division of Law Enforcement, Maryland Natural Resources Police, North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission Division of Law Enforcement, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Yarmouth, Massachusetts Division of Natural Resources, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Police Department and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The government is represented by Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorneys Cassandra Barnum and Shane Waller.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Two Texas Fishermen Sentenced for False Statements to Law Enforcement Agents

Jamal Marshall was sentenced to six months imprisonment and six months home confinement today following a hearing in federal district court in Houston, Texas, for making false statements to law enforcement agents regarding the illegal harvest of snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.  A second fisherman, Jacob Brown, was previously sentenced on November 29, 2017, to 2 months imprisonment and 4 months home confinement.  The sentences were announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement.

In August 2017, Marshall and Brown pleaded guilty to making false statements to agents with the Coast Guard Investigative Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Office of Law Enforcement.  According to court documents filed at the time of the plea, the two illegally harvested more than 1,900 pounds of fish, including 642 snapper, weighing approximately 1,846 pounds.  The two subsequently lied to law enforcement agents regarding the possession of these fish in order to hide their illegal harvest from Texas waters.

“This case highlights the superb partnership between Texas Parks and Wildlife, NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, and the Coast Guard here in southeast Texas,” said Capt. Kevin Oditt, Commander of the Coast Guard Sector Houston/Galveston. “As a team, we work together to enforce laws that ensure the sustainability of our fisheries. In protecting our living marine resources, we also protect the livelihoods of commercial fishermen and the ability of recreational anglers to enjoy the sport for generations to come.”

“I am extremely proud of the combined effort by the USCG, NOAA, and Texas Game Wardens who work tirelessly day and night to protect of our natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Col. Grahame Jones of the Texas Parks and Wildlife's Law Enforcement Division.

Reef fish, such as red snapper and vermilion snapper, provide significant economic benefits to the state of Texas from both commercial and recreational fishing.  Red snapper, the most popular reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, are a top predator in the Gulf ecosystem, prized among recreational fishermen, and a valued offering at restaurants.  Unsustainable catch rates have led to declines in the populations of these two fish. At their lowest point, vermilion snapper stocks were estimated to be at 20 percent of their historical abundance, and red snapper stocks were estimated to be at only three percent.

The case was investigated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Office of Law Enforcement, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Two Brothers Sentenced to 21 Months and 16 Months in Prison for Illegally Trafficking Threatened Alligator Snapping Turtles

Travis Leger of Sulphur, Louisiana, and his half-brother Jason Leckelt of Wilburton, Oklahoma, were sentenced today in federal court in Beaumont, Texas, to 21 months and 16 months in prison, respectively, followed by three years of supervised release for conspiring to violate the Lacey Act by illegally trafficking alligator snapping turtles.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Acting U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston of the Eastern District of Texas made the announcement.

The third defendant in the case, Rickey Simon of Sulphur, Louisiana, was sentenced to three years of probation.  U.S. District Court Judge Marcia A. Crone ordered the sentences. 

Alligator snapping turtles are among the largest freshwater turtles in the world and can grow to weigh more than 200 pounds with a lifespan of more than 100 years.  The turtles are designated as threatened with statewide extinction under Texas State Law, which strictly prohibits anyone from taking, capturing, transporting, or selling these turtles, or attempting to do so.  The turtles are also protected under Louisiana State Law, which makes it illegal to sell or barter for the turtles.  The Lacey Act makes it a crime to engage in the interstate trafficking of wildlife taken in violation of state wildlife protection laws.

“The illegal trafficking of wildlife undermines the vital conservation work being done to protect imperiled species like the alligator snapping turtle,” said Edward Grace, Acting Chief of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ‘Today's sentencing will hopefully serve as a deterrent to others seeking to exploit and profit from the illegal wildlife trade. I applaud the hard work of everyone here at the Service, as well as our partners at Texas Parks and Wildlife and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, for their dedication to the pursuit of justice in cases such as this.”

On August 22, 2017, Leger, Leckelt, and Simon all pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge.  As part of his guilty plea, Travis Leger admitted to selling a live, illegally taken 171-pound turtle, for $1,000 and another live, illegally taken 168-pound turtle, for $500 in May and June of 2016.  The turtles were later seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agents from the buyer.  Simon admitted that he sold an illegally-trafficked, 120-pound turtle to an undercover Special Agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 19, 2016.

“This investigation illustrates the outstanding working relationship Texas Game Wardens have with our counterparts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries,” said Col. Grahame Jones, Director of Law Enforcement with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We commend the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department for their efforts to bring these miscreants to justice.”

In April of 2017, Leger, Leckelt, and Simon were all charged in a six-count Indictment.  The conspiracy charged all the defendants with illegally taking more than 60 large turtles during multiple fishing trips they took to Texas in the spring and summer of 2016, and then transporting the turtles back to a property in Sulphur, Louisiana, for sale.  Leger admitted that the market value of all the turtles that he caught illegally in Texas and then sold in Louisiana during the course of the conspiracy was between $40,000 and $95,000.  The market value of the turtles that were illegally trafficked by Leckelt was between $15,000 and $40,000. 

In July of 2016, Federal agents seized about 30 large turtles from ponds located at Leger’s property in Sulphur, Louisiana, pursuant to a federal search warrant.  As part of his guilty plea, Leger agreed to forfeit all of the seized turtles and will permit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return to his property, drain the ponds, and seize any turtles remaining in the ponds.  All of the turtles seized by the government in this case will be cared for at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Natchitoches Fish Hatchery in Louisiana and used as part of a breeding program to restock the species in its native waterways in the southwestern United States.

In a related case, Montaro Alabimo Williams of Elton, Louisiana, pleaded guilty on December 6, 2017, in federal court in Beaumont, Texas, to a misdemeanor violation of the Lacey Act for knowingly attempting to transport two alligator snapping turtles, which he illegally caught in Texas, to Louisiana on August 12, 2013.  The maximum statutory sentence for this crime is a fine of not more than $100,000 and prison for not more than one year. 

Senior Trial Attorney David P. Kehoe of the Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph R. Batte of the Eastern District of Texas prosecuted the case.  The case is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.