As eels grow in value, US clamps down on poach­ing

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Changes in the world­wide sushi in­dus­try have turned live baby Amer­i­can eels into a com­mod­ity that can fetch more than $2,000 a pound at the dock, but the big de­mand and big prices have spawned a black mar­ket that wildlife of­fi­cials say is jeop­ar­diz­ing the species.

Law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties have launched a crack­down on un­li­censed eel fish­er­men and il­licit sales along the East Coast. Although not a well-known seafood item like the Maine lob­ster, wrig­gling baby eels, or elvers, are a fish­ery worth many mil­lions of dol­lars.

Elvers of­ten are sold to Asian aqua­cul­ture com­pa­nies to be raised to ma­tu­rity and have be­come a linch­pin of the sushi sup­ply chain. But li­censed US fish­er­men com­plain poach­ing has be­come wide­spread, as prices have climbed in re­cent years. In re­sponse, the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice, the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and other agen­cies are in­ves­ti­gat­ing clan­des­tine har­vest­ing and sales. Op­er­a­tion Bro­ken Glass, a ref­er­ence to the eels’ glassy skin, has re­sulted in 15 guilty pleas for il­le­gal traf­fick­ing of about $4 mil­lion worth of elvers.

Two peo­ple are un­der in­dict­ment, and more in­dict­ments are ex­pected. In Maine, more than 400 li­censed fish­er­men make their liv­ing fish­ing for elvers in rivers such as the Penob­scot in Brewer and the Pas­sagas­sawakeag in Belfast every spring. They say law en­force­ment is vi­tal to pro­tect­ing the eels and the volatile in­dus­try. Randy Bushey, of Steuben, has been fish­ing for elvers since 1993. He said he saw his in­come bal­loon from as lit­tle as $5,000 per year in the 1990s to more than $350,000 in 2012. He said tighter quo­tas mean he’s earn­ing less these days, and in the most re­cent sea­son he made about $57,000. “I’ve seen the best, and I’ve seen the worst,” Steuben said. “I want to see it pre­served. I want to see it straight­ened out.” The elvers are legally har­vested in the US only in Maine and South Carolina. The Amer­i­can eel fish­ery was typ­i­cally worth $1 mil­lion to $3 mil­lion per year un­til 2011, when the eco­nom­ics of the in­dus­try changed. Asian and Euro­pean eel stocks dried up, and the value of Amer­i­can eels grew to more than $40 mil­lion in 2012 be­cause of de­mand in China, South Korea and other Asian coun­tries.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors also turned their eyes to poach­ing in 2011, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice told The As­so­ci­ated Press. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion of peo­ple who catch, sell or ex­port elvers il­le­gally has ranged from Maine to South Carolina; a New York seafood dis­trib­u­tor was among those net­ted. In one case, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors said, three men pleaded guilty in Novem­ber 2016 to traf­fick­ing more than $740,000 worth of elvers har­vested il­le­gally from the Cooper River in the Charleston, South Carolina, area. In an­other, Richard Austin pleaded guilty in fed­eral court in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, to traf­fick­ing more than $189,000 in il­le­gally har­vested elvers from 2013 to 2015.

The fed­eral agen­cies in­volved in the poach­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions say there’s no end date for their probe. The Depart­ment of Jus­tice de­clined to spec­u­late on how many poach­ers there are and how many ar­rests are ex­pected. A con­vic­tion for vi­o­lat­ing the Lacey Act, which pro­hibits il­le­gal wildlife trade, can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000. In­ves­ti­ga­tors go un­der­cover to track poach­ers, pos­ing as peo­ple il­le­gally fish­ing for elvers.

They also fol­low eel mi­gra­tions, hop­ing to catch il­le­gal fish­er­men on the spot. In­ves­ti­ga­tors also track catch records, which are re­quired by states, to look for pos­si­ble il­le­gal fish­ing and sell­ing along the sup­ply chain. The leg­work is nec­es­sary be­cause il­le­gal trade in elvers jeop­ar­dizes the species’ long-term sus­tain­abil­ity, said Jef­frey H. Wood, act­ing as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral with the Depart­ment of Jus­tice’s en­vi­ron­men­tal di­vi­sion.

Maine’s fish­ery for elvers is the big­gest on the East Coast, mak­ing it the sole re­li­able source of the eels in the US to pre­vent over­fish­ing, fish­er­men are lim­ited to catch­ing them for only a few weeks every spring. The eels hatch in the ocean wa­ters of the Sar­gasso Sea, a weedy patch of the At­lantic Ocean be­tween the West Indies and the Azores. They then fol­low cur­rents back to rivers and streams from Green­land to Brazil. Ma­ture eels that avoid haz­ards in­clud­ing fish­er­men’s nets, preda­tory fish and the tur­bines of hy­dro­elec­tric plants will one day re­turn to spawn in the Sar­gasso. The baby eels are tiny at the time of har­vest, weigh­ing only a few grams when they are scooped with dip-nets or trapped with larger nets that re­sem­ble small soc­cer goals. A well-man­aged eel fish­ery is crit­i­cal to the health of the rivers and streams they swim in, said US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice Deputy Chief of Law En­force­ment Ed Grace.

Eels are im­por­tant to the ma­rine ecosystem be­cause they serve as both preda­tor and prey, feed­ing on fish and mol­lusks and serv­ing as food for larger fish, seabirds and tur­tles.

“While the big charis­matic an­i­mals like bears, big cats and ea­gles tend to grab all the pub­lic at­ten­tion, it’s of­ten the smaller, more ob­scure an­i­mals that are cru­cial to re­gional ecosys­tems and economies,” Grace said. Some eels har­vested in Maine even­tu­ally re­turn to the US as sushi dishes such as un­agi. They’re also used for other food prod­ucts, such as grilled eel dishes pop­u­lar in Asia. — AP

MAINE: In this photo, baby eels swim plas­tic bag af­ter be­ing caught near Brewer, Maine. Eel har­vest­ing

MAINE: In this photo, a dish of eel ni­giri is served at Miyake, a Ja­panese restau­rant, in Port­land, Maine. — AP pho­tos

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