A bucket of baby eels confiscated by Fish and Game officers after two Maine men were arrested for allegedly poaching the eels. (Jason Schreiber)
Police say Maine brothers were 'eelusive' poachers
Matthew Kinney, 29, of Bremen, and his brother, Justin, 35, of Mount Vernon, face several charges after they were scooped up by authorities following a land and air search that lasted nearly four hours.
Fish and Game Lt. Michael Eastman said authorities received a tip early Friday morning that two men were catching baby American eels in the Hampton River near Route 1.
Eastman said two conservation officers responded to the area shortly before 5 a.m. and found that the brothers had a "substantial amount" of young eels, which are illegal to harvest in New Hampshire.
When one of the officers attempted to arrest Matthew Kinney, Eastman said, Kinney assaulted the officer, was pepper-sprayed, and then fell into the river and later fled into the woods with a handcuff on one of his wrists. Justin Kinney ran into the marsh grass and was arrested a short time later.
Eastman did not identify the conservation officer who was assaulted, but he said the officer wasn't injured.
Police from Kensington, Hampton Falls and Seabrook, along with Fish and Game officers, New Hampshire State Police, Fish and Game and search dogs and a helicopter, assisted in the hunt for Matthew Kinney.
The dogs eventually sniffed out a track leading from the area where Matthew Kinney was last seen to the Hampton Falls Inn on Route 1. Eastman said authorities learned that the brothers had rented a room at the hotel Thursday night. They found Matthew Kinney inside his hotel room around 9:15 a.m. Friday removing his wet clothing and arrested him.
Eastman said Maine and South Carolina are the only states on the East Coast where the harvesting of young eels, also known as elvers, is legal with a license.
"They were pretty much down here to poach elvers to take back to Maine to sell," Eastman said.
Illegal harvesting of baby eels has become a growing problem in New Hampshire as their selling price has skyrocketed in recent years, prompting state Fish and Game officials to crack down.
According to officials, poachers illegally catch the baby eels here and sell them to a dealer who ships them overseas to be raised and sold for meat once they're grown.
"The demand has pushed the price right up there," Eastman said. He said the number of poaching cases locally has climbed over the last three years.
"This is pretty much like having a duck season where all you can shoot is ducklings. They're taking immature eels, or young eels. What we're seeing is that this poaching is causing the bigger eels, the American eels, to decline," Eastman said.
Eastman wasn't sure how many baby eels were caught by the Kinneys, but he said the amount was typical of what authorities have seen recently.
The arrests come a month after Phillip Parker of Candia was cited by Maine's Marine Patrol for allegedly illegally possessing 41 pounds of baby eels. Maine authorities said an investigation showed that Parker intended to sell the eels without a license. It was the largest case of illegal possession of eels in the fishery's history, according to Maine officials.
Meanwhile, Matthew Kinney is charged with simple assault, disobeying a conservation officer, resisting arrest, taking American eels less than 6 inches long, and taking without a harvest permit. He's being held on $5,000 cash bail.
Justin Kinney is charged with disobeying a conservation officer, providing false information to law enforcement, hindering apprehension, taking American eels less than 6 inches long and taking without a harvest permit. His bail was set at $2,500 cash.
The brothers, both of whom face thousands of dollars in fines if convicted. were being held at the Rockigham County jail and will be arraigned Monday in the 10th Circuit Court in Seabrook.