De­pleted by fish­ing pres­sure

Enig­matic eels a fo­cus of con­cern.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By TI­MOTHY B. WHEELER

ON A chilly morn­ing when other wa­ter­men on the Patux­ent River dredged for oys­ters, Jimmy Tross­bach sought more slip­pery quarry – Amer­i­can eels.

“I don’t know what we’ll find here,” Tross­bach said as he guided his 15m workboat, Prospec­tor, to a pair of empty plas­tic jugs bob­bing on the wa­ter. His helper, Jake Walker, hooked the makeshift buoy and reeled in the eel pots or traps they’d set in the river two days be­fore.

The first cylin­dri­cal mesh cage they hauled aboard pulsed with a writhing tan­gle of olive green. Walker dumped the eels into a wooden box with holes in its sides, and the snake­like fish slith­ered into a large tank of wa­ter in the cen­tre of the boat.

“Peo­ple will say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many eels out there,’ ” said Tross­bach, 54, who’s been eel­ing for 26 years. For those who think of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay in the US state of Mary­land as home to blue crabs, oys­ters and rock­fish, it’s a rev­e­la­tion to see so many eels hauled up from the depths. But ap­pear­ances can be de­ceiv­ing. While there seem to be a lot in Mary­land waters, sci­en­tists else­where have con­cluded that the At­lantic coast’s eel pop­u­la­tion has been de­pleted.

The US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice is weigh­ing a con­ser­va­tion group’s pe­ti­tion to de­clare the Amer­i­can eel an en­dan­gered species, with an an­swer promised in 2015. Mean­while, fish­eries man­agers have been mulling ac­tion to curb the eel catch, which re­bounded re­cently af­ter a long de­cline.

Last week, the At­lantic States Ma­rine Fish­eries Com­mis­sion, which over­sees near-shore fish­ing along the coast, put off a de­ci­sion on catch lim­its un­til May while one state, Maine, works to slash its com­mer­cial har­vest of young “glass” eels. The catch there surged in re­cent years to cash in on a boom­ing ex­port mar­ket, with nearly US$39mil (RM120mil) worth of the tiny translu­cent ju­ve­niles be­ing shipped abroad, mostly to Asia.

Tross­bach wel­comed news that Maine would scale back its har­vest, say­ing it threat­ened his liveli­hood. He is lim­ited by Mary­land reg­u­la­tions to har­vest­ing more ma­ture “yel­low” eels, which must be at least 22cm long.

But the prices that over­seas buy­ers pay for larger eels have plum­meted, Tross­bach said, as the re­ported har­vest of glass eels from Maine soared. The baby eels can be shipped abroad more cheaply and raised there, he said, un­der­cut­ting de­mand for his larger spec­i­mens.

“It could eas­ily put us out of busi­ness,” he said.

Plung­ing num­bers

There’s a lot the ex­perts ac­knowl­edge they don’t know about the Amer­i­can eel, but they be­lieve its num­bers are at or near his­tor­i­cally low lev­els. The de­cline stems from a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, they say, in­clud­ing over-fish­ing, damming of rivers and chang­ing cli­mate and ocean con­di­tions. Com­mon fare in the United States and else­where in the past, eels have largely disap- peared from Amer­i­can ta­bles. They re­main pop­u­lar del­i­ca­cies in Europe and Asia, where they’re eaten stewed, fried, grilled, smoked and even jel­lied.

Many of Tross­bach’s eels get sold as bait for crab­bers and an­glers fish­ing for striped bass. But about 40% of his catch goes over­seas for hu­man con­sump­tion.

He is in rare com­pany in Mary­land. Some wa­ter­men go af­ter eels when crab­bing isn’t in sea­son, but the St Mary’s County res­i­dent fig­ured he’s one of a few full-time eel­ers. He fol­lows them up the bay in the spring, set­ting his 800 pots around Bal­ti­more in the sum­mer, and then back south as the wa­ter cools in the fall. He fishes un­til Thanks­giv­ing.

For all his years pur­su­ing the slip­pery crea­tures, Tross­bach said there’s a lot about them that’s still a mys­tery to him.

“They are strange crea­tures, no doubt,” he said.

Eels are dif­fer­ent from other fish, in more than just ap­pear­ance. Un­like striped bass, for in­stance, which roam the At­lantic coast for years and then swim up the bay into fresh wa­ter to spawn, eels spend most of their lives in fresh wa­ter and spawn in the Sar­gasso Sea near the West Indies. Their off­spring re­turn to the coast af­ter months adrift on ocean cur­rents, where they change ap­pear­ance as they grow, from glass eels to darker elvers to yel­low eels.

They spread out through the

Mary­land has the high­est land­ings by weight of any state on the coast, but Keith White­ford, a state Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources bi­ol­o­gist who keeps tabs on elvers and their prey, said fish­ing pres­sure in state waters did not ap­pear to be ex­ces­sive. Sur­veys in a hand­ful of Mary­land wa­ter­ways in­di­cate the pop­u­la­tion has been on the re­bound since the 1990s, he said, though he ac­knowl­edged that their num­bers weren’t as care­fully tracked in prior decades.

“I think we fish them hard be­cause we have a lot of eels,” White­ford said.

Not ev­ery­one is con­vinced. Leah Za­bel, with the Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Science, Ac­cu­racy and Re­li­a­bil­ity, said the Cal­i­for­ni­abased group be­lieves that Amer­i­can eels are in much worse shape now than when it pe­ti­tioned three years ago to have them pro­tected from com­mer­cial har­vest un­der the fed­eral En­dan­gered Species Act.

“It ap­pears that poach­ing is an enor­mous prob­lem,” she said, with ex­ports of eels from Canada and Maine alone said to be two to three times what the of­fi­cially re­ported har­vest was. The cen­tre sued the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice last year af­ter the agency ac­knowl­edged there were grounds to con­sider the pe­ti­tion.

The agency is work­ing to re­stock the eel pop­u­la­tion in the Susque­hanna River. Fed­eral bi­ol­o­gists re­ported they col­lected more than 270,000 young elvers be­low Conowingo Dam this spring and sum­mer and re­leased them up­river. In the past few years, they’ve trucked more than 400,000 above the dam.

Yet, Steve Minkki­nen, project leader in the ser­vice’s Mary­land Fish­ery Re­source Of­fice, said based on avail­able habi­tat, there should be more than 11 mil­lion eels through­out the river. The fed­eral effort is about more than restor­ing eels – they are pri­mary hosts for a scarce fresh­wa­ter mus­sel, the east­ern el­lip­tio.

Sci­en­tists hope that re­stock­ing eels may re­vive the mus­sels and help the river’s wa­ter qual­ity, as el­lip­tios are pro­lific fil­ter feed­ers. As the At­lantic states com­mis­sion con­sid­ers whether to or­der coastwide cuts in eel har­vest, Tross­bach’s liveli­hood is up in the air.

On his first day fish­ing out of Solomons, Tross­bach fig­ured his catch was 180kg to 200kg – a “de­cent” if not great haul. At the dock, the two men scooped their catch into trash cans and car­ried them to a cov­ered tank in the back of a pick-up truck. In the last batch, two eels win a re­prieve.

“I al­ways let the last two go,” he said, “so I have two to catch to­mor­row.” – The Bal­ti­more Sun/ McClatchy Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Reel them in: Jake Walker helps move some of the 200kg of eel that were caught on Jimmy Tross­bach’s boat. Mary­land eel fish­er­men find them­selves strug­gling to make a de­cent liv­ing on their catch as Maine wheel­ers earn mil­lions by net­ting mil­lions of baby ‘glass’ eels for ex­port to asia. (be­low) There is con­cern that at­lantic eels have been de­pleted by fish­ing pres­sure.

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