When an eel kingpin falls

Elvers are so many things, really. They are baby eels, translucent, skinny and slimy, with a striking resemblance to see-through cooked spaghetti. They are an acquired taste (or so we hear), with a flavor that can drive even rugged English countrymen close to retching. They are a prized Asian import, fetching an average of $1,600 a pound from the New England fishermen who haul them in during a short 10-week fishing season each year. And they are the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar international poaching ring, with a Maine man referred to as the “Elver King” likely headed to prison this week for his…slippery ways.

“Bill looks forward to giving the rest of the story at sentencing.”

According to the Bangor Daily News, self-styled 71-year-old eel kingpin Bill Sheldon on Thursday will issue a guilty plea in federal court. At issue is 281 pounds of elvers, worth a staggering $545,000, allegedly poached from New Jersey and Virginia between 2011 and 2014. Roughly a dozen other men have also pled guilty to being part of this lucrative international operation, but none of them appear to have Sheldon’s particular cachet.

Several years back, Buzzfeed ran a profile of the illustrious Sheldon, an eel trader with an armed bodyguard, a Glock .40, massive quantities of loose cash, and a personalized license plate on his truck: EEL WGN. His lurid tale reads like one of those cautionary biopics, where a well-intentioned civilian is gradually gripped by avarice and paranoia. Before he was a kingpin, Sheldon was just a state employee with a degree in wildlife management, tasked with researching whether Maine had the freshwater eel resources to satisfy a hungry Japanese populace (see: the delicacy unagi).

Over the decades (and by all means read the entire wild Buzzfeed feature), Sheldon went from an enterprising scientist to a wildly successful freshwater eel trader working up and down the East Coast. Many of the American rivers which had once been flush with elvers started to run empty, and state after state prohibited fishing for them. South Carolina is now the only state besides Maine that permits elver fishing (though with significant restrictions). As global supplies dwindled, eel prices have soared. Japanese freshwater eels are now listed as critically endangered—as are European eels—with American eels hovering right near the endangered mark for the last decade.

For his part, Sheldon is claiming not to be the criminal mastermind portrayed by prosecutors and the media. In an emailed statement, his attorney Walter McKee wrote, “Bill looks forward to giving the rest of the story at sentencing. He is hardly any ‘kingpin’ as he has been called over the past two years.” McKee continued, “We will show at sentencing that the total alleged illegal elvers were just north of 1 percent of the total legal elvers Bill purchased from 2011 to 2017.”

Sheldon will waive his right to appeal any prison sentence of 30 months or less. He also faces up to $250,000 in fines. (Eagle-eyed readers may note that is less than half the amount of money he allegedly made from poached elvers.)

Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.