Demand for the mysterious ‘glass eel’ has turned into a risky, big-money business

Fishing for Elvers in MaineDoug Struck, Christian Science Monitor

JUNE 7, 2017 ELLSWORTH, MAINE—The rains had slacked with the tide, and a full moon glimmered smoky through the clouds. At 1 a.m., Julie Keene tucked her red hair under a baseball cap, pulled waders over her cammies, and invaded the Union River to see if she had caught elvers.

She only needed seven more pounds to hit this season’s limit. And then she could quit the sleep-starved life, cramped in a cheap motel, cooking on a hotplate, drinking too much coffee, living in the same clothes for days.

“I could go home and get some sleep,” she said wistfully. The first of her two nets tonight was a bust, nearly empty. “My fault … shoulda checked it an hour earlier,” she muttered as she picked her way down a rocky slope toward her second net. Adam Boutin, her partner of 23 years and a fellow fisherman, loped easily over the rocks and got to the net first.

“Got some,” he drawled, with a Mainer’s economy.

Keene swished into the cold water, untied the funnel of the net and peered in with her headlamp. Inside were nearly two pounds of writhing, translucent baby eels – elvers. 

Two pounds would bring her $ 2,665 at the dealer later that morning.

She did a little dance. “Not bad! Not bad!”  

Keene is a veteran elver fisher, one of only 425 Mainers, aside from native tribes, who can legally harvest the mysterious juvenile eels. The two-inch long fish, called “glass eels” for their colorless bodies, wiggle by the millions on the nighttime tides – invisible to most – from the ocean near Bermuda up rivers and streams all along the Atlantic Coast.

What Keene and her companions catch are flown live to China where they are raised for grilled eel and sushi.

Even scientists don’t know much about this secretive fish – exactly how and where they go, and how many of them there really are.

But plenty of others have noticed the soaring price for elvers, and tried to get into the game, one way or another. Federal and state agents recently concluded a four-year investigation they called “Operation Broken Glass.”  Undercover agents posed as fishermen selling illegal eels, and prosecutors charged dealers and fishermen with breaking the law in eight East Coast states.

To some, the turmoil that has washed over elver fishermen in recent years reads a lot like a morality play about the dangers of sudden riches. Elver fishing was once a quirky pastime that gave rural Mainers a few extra bucks and a break from spring clam digging. But as the worldwide demand for eels grew and supplies shrank, it has become a big-money business, with struggles over quotas, fights over fishing rights, and even fisherwomen like Keene packing pistols – just in case.

“Now there’s good money in this, and they talk about closing us down,” says Darrell Young, head of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association. “To be honest, I think there’s a bit of jealousy that a guy like me with no college education could be making $ 200,000 a year.”

elver eelsBen Garvin/The Christian Science Monitor/File

‘He’s been a father…’

Twelve people already have pleaded guilty. But in Maine, the stage lights will be on the federal trial of the patron of elver fishing, William Sheldon, 71. Many here doff their cap to Mr. Sheldon as the man who helped create the elver business in the state.

“He’s been a father to most of the fishermen around here,” says Mr. Young. “We’ve learned how to fish by Bill Sheldon. He’s given hundreds of people eel nets. We still love him.”

Still, Young acknowledges, “it didn’t help us none – biggest buyer in the state of Maine running up and down the East Coast,” doing what federal agents call poaching. “I was pretty upset with him.”

Sheldon is facing federal charges of coaching fishermen in South Carolina where to catch fish illegally, buying elvers from states where the fishing is banned, and with doctoring paperwork to export black-market eels.

“The biggest thing to look out for is if a local cop or a warden should stop you,” Sheldon told a wired undercover agent, according to a search warrant request filed in federal court in Bangor.  “I could get in a jam if I knew that eels that you’re selling me are coming from another state.”

“It ain’t half as bad as what’s been written,” Sheldon told a reporter for the Monitor, while he wrapped up purchases for this spring’s season. With charges pending, he is still a licensed buyer, still driving his big Ford pickup truck with the license plate EELWGN. “I am going to go to court and have my day in court.”

From the Sargasso Sea to Maine’s rivers

Eels have been unseen travelers in rivers for millions of years. Aristotle called them earth worms, and thought they emerged spontaneously from the muck. In North America, mature eels were caught by the thousands by native Americans and colonists. The Iroquois in New York still have a prominent Eel Clan, and their ancestors honored spirits in the migratory eel multitudes.

No one has seen eels spawn, but scientists think the American eel is born in a Western Atlantic gyre between Bermuda and the Bahamas called the Sargasso Sea. For up to a year, the larvae drift and swim on currents that take them to coastlines from Greenland through the Caribbean to French Guiana.

At about two inches long, the larvae become “glass eels” or elvers, and wriggle up waterways. They don’t pick a specific river, like salmon, but seek fresh headwaters. Small but determined, tiny elvers wriggle through wet grass and can mount six-foot dam walls, climbing atop each other like Navy plebes scaling the Academy obelisk.

They live in fresh water from three to 30 years, hiding in the mud and bottom rubble of lakes, lagoons, and streams. They are then called “yellow eels” until they finally become silver, and their eyes change. They begin to weave snakelike downstream to salt water, and then to the Sargasso Sea, often thousands of miles away, to spawn and die. Fifteen eel species, all close cousins, work their way in similar stealth up and down rivers throughout the world, from Europe to New Zealand.

‘Do you have elvers?’

Mature eels were caught for food, but there was little value in the nearly-weightless elvers. For Mainers, that began to change after 1974. Sheldon, now a target of the government, ironically worked for the state as a fresh college graduate. He recalls, “Tokyo sent us a letter and said, ‘Do you have elvers? We want them.’ ”

Tsukiji Fish Market, TokyoFlickr / Arian ZwegersHe learned that Maine rivers were thick with young eels on spring nights, and wrote a pamphlet on how to catch the fish, keep them alive, and transport them to the airport.

The elvers caught in Maine are flown live to China, raised to foot-long lengths, and mostly exported for sushi and barbecued eel. Japan eats an estimated three-quarters of the global catch, culminating in the traditional grilled eel dishes on the summer holiday Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi, which means Day of the Ox.

Some eels return to Maine. The Shinbashi Restaurant, just 2,000 feet from elver nets on the Union River in Ellsworth, touts its Dragon Roll sushi – crab, avocado, and eel that likely traveled to China and back – for $ 11.95.

As with every wild fish prized for sales and profit, arguments flare over how many are lurking under the surface. Elver fishermen used to haul a lot more prey out of American waters. For five of the years between 1974 and 1981, the US eel catch topped 3 million pounds. The catch plummeted in the mid-1980s, to 700,000 pounds in 2002.

The reason for the drop still is unclear, and hotly debated. A benchmark 2012 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission study called the fish “depleted” in US waters. It blamed the gang of usual suspects: overfishing, pollution, development, dams in rivers that stop fish migration, climate change, food scarcity, and disease. Fishermen remain skeptical of the conclusions, suggesting natural fluctuations and undercounting are a more likely explanation. They say the rivers are full of elvers.

Indeed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared in 2007 and again in 2015 that the American eel population was stable and should not be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Canadian authorities call the species “threatened,” and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the eel to its respected “Red List” of endangered species in 2014.

“How many times do we have to beat that back?” complains Randy Bushy, who both fishes and buys elvers for export. He sits in a bare office in Steuben, Maine, fielding a stream of cellphone calls asking what he’s paying today for elvers. A .22-calibre pistol hangs on his belt – a holdover, he says, from when buying elvers was a cash business and he routinely carried tens of thousands of dollars at night on isolated riverbanks.

“You have one female eel, and she’s got 22 million eggs in her,” he said. “There’s no way a scientist can figure out that it’s endangered.” 

“We have to manage a balance,” responds Toni Kerns, director of the Interstate Fisheries Management Program of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. “We set these regulations to have a balance of commercial harvest so folks can get out there and make a living, and leave a certain amount in the water for the population to continue and grow. If we take them all now, we won’t have any for the future.”

The drop in the catch, and the scientific alarms, brought action. Most states allow only grown eel fishing. Other than Maine, only South Carolina issues 10 elver permits on just one river. Maine capped its licenses and set an annual cap on their catch, divided among the license holders.

eel sushiFlickr/adactioAs fish stocks fell – Japan fished out its native species by the 1990s, and Europe banned exports of its eel species in 2010 because of dwindling numbers – American eels turned suddenly precious. The prices, as low as $ 24 a pound in 2001, averaged $ 2,171 per pound in 2015, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. This year, they have hovered at about $ 1,300 a pound.

The lure of those prices was strong, acknowledges Keith Whiteford, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources in Maryland, where the fishing is illegal. Twice he has found his scientific survey traps looted of elvers. “If I could make $ 10,000 dollars in one night, I might be tempted to take my chances.”

Maine fishermen chafe that authorities have not yet raised the quotas, despite what they say is an abundance of elvers. The quota, 9,616 pounds this year, was nearly filled by mid-May, with three weeks left in the season.

“There are plenty of eels. Just let us fish out the season,” says Young.

‘The brook was … like a blanket’

After scraping their nets for a tenth of a pound one night, a pound or two the next, Keene and her partner Boutin hit their limits with a sudden run of elvers in early May. They took down the 30-foot wide V-shaped nets, put away the magnetic swipe card that the state now uses to track their catch to the thousandth of a pound, and checked out of Jasper’s Motel in Ellsworth, their home for a month.

Two weeks later, while Keene was planting a garden at her house near Lubec in the northeast corner of Maine,  Boutin helped a relative set a net for the last of his quota on a small brook off the Penobscot River near Bangor. They propped the net up with sticks in mid-afternoon, and came back well after dark.

It was a quiet little stream – they didn’t expect much of a catch. But the funnel sock was stuffed with 15 pounds of elvers. Boutin played his flashlight over the surface of the water. 

“The whole brook was just like a blanket,” he says, amazed. “You’ve never seen so many.”

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