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Boaters caught trying to smuggle over 110,000 live eels out of Puerto Rico, feds say

Two people are facing charges after the United States Coast Guard found them trying to take over 110,000 eels out of Puerto Rico without proper paperwork, prosecutors said.

Customs and Border Protection officials noticed a “suspicious” boat about 40 miles off the northern coast of Puerto Rico on the morning of Feb. 21, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico said in a March 1 news release. The boat was described as “flagless and outfitted for smuggling.”

The U.S. Coast Guard approached the boat and, when it refused to stop, had to “neutralize” it, prosecutors said.

Once onboard, officials found two people with 22 bags of live American eels, prosecutors said. Each bag held “over 5,000 eels”, officials said, totaling at least 110,000 eels.

The pair of boaters were heading to the Dominican Republic but did not have the proper licenses or paperwork for exporting wildlife, according to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed by prosecutors on Feb. 22.

Their attorneys did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on March 1.

American eels, scientifically known as Anguilla rostrata, are “a species of fish native to the Eastern United States and the Caribbean,” prosecutors said. As juveniles, these fish “are transparent and measure approximately 2-3 inches in length.” Immature eels are sometimes referred to as “elvers” or “glass eels.”

Adult American eels can measure between 3 to 5 feet in length, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“American eels have not been successfully bred in captivity,” prosecutors said. Commercial markets focus on selling “glass eels” to Asia “where they are raised into adults and sold for sushi and other foods.”

Prosecutors implied that the boaters were caught with baby eels but did not state this explicitly.

The pair told the Coast Guard that some of the eels were bought in Puerto Rico and others were harvested off the coast, wildlife officials said in the affidavit.

Both individuals were arrested Feb. 22, per court records, and are facing charges of “smuggling goods from the United States,” “transporting and intending to sell the fish in violation of United States regulations” and “failure to heave to” or stop when ordered to by the Coast Guard, prosecutors said.

“If convicted, the defendants face a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison,” attorneys said in the release.

“The illegal harvesting of American eels poses a vital threat to the survival of this essential species and undermines legal fishery management, jeopardizing the ecosystem,” Ed Grace, the assistant director of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, said in the release.

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