Poach­ing jeop­ar­dizes eel

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Patrick Whit­tle

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.”

Robert F. Bukaty, The As­so­ci­ated Press file pho­tos

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.

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