Poaching jeopardizes eel
BREWER, MAINE» Changes in the worldwide fisheries 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 sold to the lucrative Japanese restaurant market, where they mainly are served grilled.
But licensed U.S. fishermen complain poaching has become widespread, as prices have climbed in recent years. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. 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, with more 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.
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.”
Licensed eel fishermen Julie Keene and Jessica Card set up a fyke net on the banks of the Penobscot River after setting a net in Brewer, Maine.
In the spring baby eels, known as elvers, swim upstream with the rising tide.