The Glass Eel

The Glass Eel

Sounds like the title of a children’s book, doesn’t it? A glass eel (or an elver, another wonderful evocative name) is a baby eel. These creatures are tiny and almost translucent. A few weeks ago I was at the beach with my daughter and nephew . There’s a stream that flows Into the ocean from the woods, and the kids love to play in it because the water is warm, and they can dam the stream and do all kinds of things. On this particular day, there were all these tiny, squirmy, wiggly little eels about an inch long. The kids were having a great time trying to catch them- it was not too easy! You had to cup your hands beneath where you thought the eel was going to go, then bring your cupped hands upwards slowly. (Makes sense, because apparently the way to harvest them is with sieves.)  While the children were having fun trying to catch the eels, I overheard one of the women joking that maybe we could catch them and make a lot of money.  “Baby eels are worth a lot,”she said.”I really don’t know why.”

Well, there aren’t that many opportunities for me to show off at the beach, but as luck would have it, my Natural Resource Economics class had done a case study on glass eels the year before. For something as innocuous looking as a baby eel, they sure are exciting! Poachers, black markets, guns, and biology- it’s got it all.

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, eels have a catadromous lifecycle. In other Words, they spend part of their life in salt water, and part in fresh.  The type of eel that we saw spawn in the Sargasso sea, part of the Atlantic ocean near Bermuda. When the baby eels hatch, they hang out in the ocean for awhile- perhaps months- until the Gulf Stream carries them inland.  Once they begin their migration up the streams of the Eastern United States, they’re known as elvers. (So, technically what we saw at the beach that day were elvers.)  Then, apparently, they spend up to 5 to 8 years just hanging out in fresh water) before they return to the Sargasso sea to spawn. Once they spawn, they die. (Seems like a lot of effort, but hey, who am I to judge? My life probably would seem pretty strange to an elver !)

It wasn’t until fairly recently (and by that I mean the 90s) that the elver market really took off. Eel is not so popular in the United States (you may see unagi Sushi rolls at Japanese restaurants, but that’s really the extent of it).  However , eel is in huge demand in Asia. So a huge proportion (I’ll have to check on the number) of the glass eels harvested in the United States are shipped to Asia.

For me, one of the fascinating parts of the story is that the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and whoever else don’t actually eat the elvers- they eat the mature eels. But the kicker is, they can’t be bred in captivity. They have to ship the elvers from the US to Asia, and raise them there.  That means that all the elver harvested in the US has to be shipped to Korea – or Taiwan, or Japan or China- live. Think about it. What a massive undertaking. The water, the fuel costs- it’s mindboggling, really.

So why don’t the Asians use their own elvers? Well, obviously this particular species of eel lives in the western Atlantic and migrates to the eastern US. They don’t have this particular species in Asia. But the larger part is that the native elver fisheries in Asia and Europe have been depleted.  According to an article in the Scientific American, Europe banned the export of European eels in 2010. Then, in 2011, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that swept over Japan decimated its eel farms.

It’s a classic case of supply and demand. The Japanese are the largest consumers of eel in the world- according to the Scientific American article, they Consume over 2/3 of the total amount sold worldwide. That’s enormous. So there’s a huge demand.  Couple that with the European export ban and the tsunami, and even my Intro students could tell you that the price is going to skyrocket.

And skyrocket it did.  So much so that what had been perhaps a small portion of a Maine fisherman’s income became a hugely lucrative opportunity.  So much so that those relatively few license holders suddenly became wealthy, in terms of holding an increasingly valuable asset. So much so that poachers came out of the woods (literally) to get a piece of the action.

Fishermen started carrying guns (that is, if they weren’t armed already, but that’s a different question). Conflicts arose over the best areas to net the small squirmy creatures. Fishermen who had previously been able to leave their gear unmolested by the side of a stream would return to find it had been sabotaged. (Did I mention that elvers  are nocturnal? Picture all this activity happening at night by a remote northern or western Maine stream, and you’re starting to get the picture.)

I’ll post later about some of the ways Maine manages its elver fishery in a later post. Now I’m  going to go out and enjoy some of Maine’s Riches – I’m going camping!

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