Major Seafood Dealer and Eight Individuals Indicted for International Wildlife Trafficking

The Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Environmental Crimes Section, unsealed an indictment charging a major seafood distributor and eight of its employees and associates with smuggling, Lacey Act violations and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act, stemming from their trafficking in large volumes of highly imperiled eels. The defendants facing these felony charges are:

  • American Eel Depot Corporation of Totowa, New Jersey
  • Yi Rui Huang, aka Ricky, 47, of Oakland Gardens, New York
  • Fen Liu, aka Emily, 45, of Oakland Gardens, New York
  • Chao Jin Shi, aka Kevin, 49, of Flushing, New York
  • Guo Tuan Zhou, aka Jason, 45, of Woodhaven, New York
  • Liang Chen, aka Jackie, 33, of Fujian, China
  • Yundong Wei, 42, of Fuzhou, China
  • Xiajuan Huang Zhouyi, 46, of Changle, China
  • Hong Lee, aka John, 75, of Yuen Long, Hong Kong

American Eel Depot is the largest importer and wholesale distributor of eel meat in the United States. Eel poaching and smuggling is one of the world’s biggest wildlife trafficking problems, based on both the number of animals and the amount of money that changes hands in the black market.

Following a crackdown on the poaching and smuggling of American eels, eel traffickers, including the defendants in this case, shifted their efforts to European eels, a species facing an even greater threat of extinction. It has been illegal since 2010 to export European eels out of any European Union country. European eels are also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) wildlife protection treaty, which is enforced in the United States through the Endangered Species Act.

Despite this ban, the indictment alleges, the defendants conspired to unlawfully smuggle large quantities of live baby European eels out of Europe, to their eel-rearing factory in China. After rearing the baby eels to maturity, defendants’ Chinese facility would then slaughter and process the eels for shipping to the United States, to be sold as sushi products.

The indictment alleges that, over a four-year period, the defendants imported approximately 138 ocean containers full of eel meat into the United States, with a market value exceeding $160 million. The indictment focuses on six containers, seized by the government, which were determined to contain all or mostly European eel, mislabeled as American eel to avoid law enforcement detection. American eel fishing is highly regulated but still lawful in limited quantities in some areas. As alleged in the indictment, 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.

“This case demonstrates the effectiveness and importance of the Endangered Species Act in cracking down on the international trafficking of protected wildlife,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “We will not allow United States-based businesses and their executives and associates to cause – and profit off of – the systemic decline of the world’s protected aquatic species.”

“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,” said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement. “This indictment sends a clear message to individuals and corporations that if they unlawfully profit and decimate wildlife, domestically or abroad, investigators will work tirelessly to seek justice.”

This case was investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, USFWS and Customs and Border Protection. Trial Attorneys Mathew D. Evans and Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section are prosecuting the case.

If convicted, each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 (for individual defendants) or $500,000 (for business organizations), or twice the financial gain to the defendant or twice the financial loss to another, whichever is greater. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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