Conservation officers with the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Division of Fish and Wildlife have arrested and charged three men from Maine with illegally harvesting more than 24,000 juvenile eels from an Atlantic County creek, Division Director David Chanda announced today.
The three men were arrested in the early morning hours of March 13. Two of the men, Robert L. Royce, 65, of Hope, Maine, and Neal V. Kenney III, 53, of Thomaston, Maine, were observed by conservation officers around 2:45 a.m. tending an illegally set net in the Absecon Creek in Absecon.
The net was set to catch glass eels, also known as elvers, a juvenile form of the American eel. These eels are kept alive and raised for food popular in overseas cuisine. They can fetch upwards of $2,500 per pound on the open market. American eel populations are stressed by a number of factors, including loss of habitat and overharvesting.
Royce and Kenney were apprehended in possession of over three pounds of glass eels, equaling approximately 8,000 individual eels. Further investigation led the officers to a vehicle with a tank holding an additional six pounds of glass eels, equaling about 16,000 eels. Also charged was driver Dale B. Witham, 54, of Medomak, Maine.
The men were each charged with criminal trespass for conducting the operation on property owned by the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority; use of a fyke net without a license; use of an illegal fyke net; possession of approximately 24,250 eels measuring less than six inches in length; and possession of eels in excess of the daily possession limit. A fyke net is a cylindrical or cone-shaped net mounted on rings that is fixed to the bottom of waterways by anchors or stakes.
Royce, Kenney and Witham were arrested and processed with the assistance of Absecon Police Department, and remanded to the Atlantic County Correctional Facility. Royce posted $2,500 bail. Kenney and Witham were being held on $2,500 bail. Arraignment is scheduled for Monday in Absecon Municipal Court. Officers seized all equipment and vehicles associated with the operation.
The American eel, found in freshwater, estuarine and marine habitats from Greenland to South America, has been wiped out from portions of its historical freshwater habitat during the last century, mostly resulting from dams built through the 1960s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that have a glass eel season.
Eels lose habitat and migration corridors when waters are obstructed by dams and other mechanisms, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Declines are also attributed to mortality in hydropower plant turbines, degradation of habitat, and overharvest.
Adult eels live primarily in coastal lakes return to salt waters to spawn. Born in the Atlantic Ocean in what is known as the Sargasso Sea, juvenile eels migrate to fresh water in the spring, where they will remain for up to 20 years until reaching reproductive maturity. They then return to the ocean to spawn.
When they enter fresh water as juveniles, they are known as “glass” eels because of their translucent appearance. The average length of glass eels in New Jersey during March is usually less than three inches. New Jersey law sets a minimum six-inch size limit on eels and an individual possession limit of 50 per day.