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May 6, 2013

Eel smuggling case spotlights poaching market

SEABROOK, N.H. — The strange fugitive hunt that played out Friday in the vast saltmarsh between Seabrook and Hampton Falls has landed two Maine brothers in jail.

But it has also put a spotlight on the illegal practice of harvesting a tiny, slimy fish that can command upward $1,800 per pound.

Known as “elvers,” the targets of the harvest are juvenile American eels — not more than 6 inches long. And at this time of year, they migrate up rivers in large schools.

Different from the more familiar slime eels and eels used as bait by fishermen off Gloucester and Cape Ann, the elvers are thin as spaghetti and translucent — but they are a hot commodity in Japan, where they are raised in fish farms to full size and sold to consumers.

Police say the lure of that handsome price brought Matthew Kinney, 29, of Bremen, Maine, and his brother Justin, 35, of Mount Vernon, Maine, to the Hampton Falls River in an attempt to illegally catch elvers. According to Lt. Michael Eastman of New Hampshire Fish and Game, the two were spotted at around 5 a.m. by a routine Fish and Game patrol.

Both complied at first with officers, but then the situation changed. Justin fled but was quickly captured, according to Eastman. But Matthew put up a more intense struggle, assaulting an officer who was attempting to arrest him, then falling into the river and trying to flee into the marsh —reportedly with a police handcuff attached to one wrist. But after making his way across the salt marsh to the Hampton Falls Inn, where the pair had a room, Eastman said, Matthew was taken into custody as well.

Matthew Kinney faces three counts of assault and battery on police officer (felony), simple assault, resisting arrest, disobeying a conservation officer, and taking American Eels under six inches long. Bail was set at $5,000 cash.

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