Gov­ern­ment curb­ing eel poach­ing as catch value grows

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - 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 eel restau­rant mar­ket.

But li­censed U.S. fish­er­men com­plain poach­ing has be­come wide­spread as prices have climbed in re­cent years. In re­sponse, the 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, 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,” Mr. Bushey said. “I want to see it pre­served. I want to see it straight­ened out.”

The elvers are legally har­vested in the U.S. only in Maine and South Carolina. The Amer­i­can eel fish­ery typ­i­cally was 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.

Maine’s fish­ery for elvers is the big­gest on the East Coast, mak­ing it the sole re­li­able source of the eels in the U.S. To pre­vent over­fish­ing, fish­er­men are lim­ited to catch­ing them for only a few weeks ev­ery spring.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Baby eels, known as elvers, fetch thou­sands of dol­lars a pound for sushi in Asian mar­kets, but poach­ing in Maine is cut­ting into li­censed eel fish­ers’ prof­its.

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