The biggest importer of eel meat in the United States is accused of trafficking endangered baby eels, which were slaughtered after maturity and shipped out to be sushi products, according to federal authorities.
American Eel Depot and eight individuals, based in New York, New Jersey, China and Hong Kong, were accused of international wildlife trafficking, according to an April 29 news release from the Department of Justice.
In the past four years, the group imported roughly 138 containers of eel meat worth about $160 million to the United States, authorities said. Investigators examined six of the containers from the seafood dealer and found they each contained meat from endangered eels, the release said.
The defendants are accused of trafficking European eels, which are listed as “critically endangered” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, according to the European Commission.
Once the company had smuggled the baby eels out of Europe, prosecutors say they were sent to China, where the eels were raised.
When the eels were adults, they were slaughtered and prepared for shipping to the U.S. to be used as sushi products, the release said.
The containers that the European eel meat shipped in were mislabeled as American eel, and prosecutors said that was deliberate.
“The defendants knew the eels’ true species, knew what they were doing was unlawful, and intentionally lied to U.S. authorities to conceal the illegalities and avoid detection,” prosecutors said in the release.
If convicted, each defendant in the case could face up to 20 years, according to the DOJ. Individuals may also be fined up to $250,000, and the business may pay up to $500,000, or twice the financial gain to the defendant.
“This investigation highlights the global trade pressures facing freshwater eels, and the Service’s commitment to stand as a united front with our international partners in protecting both foreign and domestic species,” Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement said.
Wild eel populations globally have declined by 90% in the past 30 years, according to the University of Michigan, partially due to the rise in demand for sushi.