Three men from Maine have been arrested and charged with poaching more than 24,000 baby eels out of Absecon Creek, the Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement.

Conservation officers from the state Division of Fish and Wildlife saw two of the men at about 2:45 a.m. Friday, tending to an illegally set net that was set to catch juvenile glass eels, also known locally as elvers. The glass eels are the juvenile form of the American Eel, which live up to 20 years in freshwater lakes and streams before migrating to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.

Robert Royce, 65, of Hope, Maine, and Neal V. Kenney, III, 53, of Thomaston, Maine, were arrested while possessing more than three pounds of the juvenile eels, which translates to about 8,000 individual eels, the DEP said. Officers then found a truck with a tank holding another six pounds, or 16,000 eels. Conservation officers then arrested the driver, Dale Witham, 54, of Medomak, Maine.

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All three were charged with criminal trespass while conducting illegal activity on property owned by the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority, use of a fyke net without a license, use of an illegal fyke net, possession of about 24,250 eels measuring less than 6 inches in length,h and possession of eels exceeding a daily possession limit.

All three were arrested and processed with the help of the Absecon Police Department and lodged in the Atlantic County Justice Facility on $2,500 bail. Royce has since posted bail and been released. Arraignment is scheduled for Monday. Officers seized all equipment and vehicles associated with the incident.

Juvenile American Eels are raised for food popular in Asian cuisine. One pound can fetch up to $2,500 on the open market, the DEP said. The men were using a fyke net, which is a cone-shaped net mounted on rings and fixed to the bottom by stakes.

The average length of the juvenile eels in New Jersey this time of year is less than 3 inches. State law sets a minimum catch length of 6 inches and a catch limit of 50 eels per day.

American eels, which are found in freshwater, bay and ocean habitats from Greenland to South America, have been eliminated from much of the species’ historical freshwater habitat in the past 100 years, mostly because of dams that block the animal from migrating up rivers. Power plant turbines, degrading habitat and overfishing also are causes for why the species’ number has declined. Only Maine and South Carolina have glass eel seasons, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Anyone who sees what they think is illegal fishing should call 877-WARN-DEP.

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