Oceanography: Don't Steal This Eel

Little eels lead to big fish. It’s an open secret that American eels make great live bait, and have – again and again – led anglers to derby glory. But an appetite in Asian markets for the littlest of little American eels has led to a spike in their price. And that, in turn, has led to a rise in illegal harvesting and concerns about the species as a whole. Striper fishermen, take note.

American eels are the only catadromus species in North America. They are born in the Sargasso Sea, where female eels release millions of eggs and baby eels drift on the ocean currents. The small eels then migrate to live in fresh water in North America before returning to the ocean to spawn and die.

“They are quite unique among fish here,” said Brad Chase, a Massachusetts marine fisheries biologist. In Massachusetts, the eels can grow to be nearly three feet long. “What you see is a very small commercial fishery,” Chase said.

Though the eels are most often used as bait for striped bass, not too long ago there was a market for food eels that has now faded away. The youngest eels are still desirable cuisine in Asia, however. The translucent young of the year, called glass eels, and slightly older eels that have gained pigment, called elvers, are especially popular in Japan, where grilled eel is a popular dish. The elvers are easily shipped, he said, and then raised in a farm setting where they grow larger. 

Harvesting these young eels is prohibited in all states except Maine and South Carolina. In Massachusetts, it is illegal to harvest an eel smaller than nine inches. But where it is legal it is profitable. Elvers are currently fetching just below $1,000 a pound, said Chase. That’s down from $2,000 the year before, but far above the 2010 average of $185. In 2013, commercial elver landings in Maine totaled 18,076 pounds, valued at nearly $33 million. 

Elver values spiked in 2011, when European and Japanese eels were overharvested and people turned to the American eel to fill the void. The damage to Japanese infrastructure from the 2011 tsunami also led to more demand for imported eels. “We’ve had very significant poaching problems since,” Chase said. 

In May the department of Marine and Environment Services reported a foiled poaching attempt in Falmouth, with officers rescuing thirty-five pounds of elvers. Chase said elver poaching in Massachusetts affects the ability to increase the population of older eels. At all life stages, eels “are important prey for lots of different fish and wildlife, so we want to increase the population for that reason, too.”

As for the impact poaching has on the species as a whole, that is a tougher question. “But certainly the incentives are very high right now to overharvest eels by poaching,” he said. A recent stock assessment listed the eel as depleted. Next year, a determination will be made whether to add the American eel to the endangered species list. Harvesting quotas may also be revised.

“In Massachusetts I can say that we are absolutely at historic low levels of harvest and abundance,” he said. “We’ve come a long ways in fifty years from what was abundant and available.”