TOTOWA — The federal government has indicted a seafood distributor and eight of its employees and associates on charges of smuggling valuable eels.

The company, American Eel Depot of Totowa, New Jersey, is the biggest importer and wholesale distributor of eel meat in the country. The Justice Department said on April 29 that the defendants in the case conspired to unlawfully smuggle large numbers of baby European eels out of Europe to a factory in China.

The department said the eels were reared to maturity, slaughtered, and processed for shipping to the U.S. for sale as sushi. The defendants in the case are charged with violating the Lacey Act, which bans illegal trafficking in wildlife, and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act, the department said.

Bruce Steeves
A man dip netting for elvers on a river in Southern Maine. (AP)

American Eel Depot did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday. The eight employees and associates are located in New York City, China and Hong Kong.

Altogether, the department said they imported 138 ocean containers full of European eel meat over a four-year period. The market value of the meat is estimated at over $160 million, according to the department.

Baby eels are among the most lucrative fish species in the seafood world. The U.S. fishery for American eels is based almost entirely in Maine. The baby eels are often worth more than $2,000 per pound at the docks.

Eel Frenzy
Caught elvers in Portland, Maine. Elvers are young, translucent eels. (AP)

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