Last year saw some of the highest prices ever recorded for glass eels, or elvers, the young version of the American eel. Over US $2000/pound by the end of the season. As I wrote here, the life cycle and environmental importance of the American eel is still a relative mystery, partially because of their complex migratory pattern. But with American stocks considered to be their lowest since the 1950s, European eels under strict protection and Asian Japonica stocks presumed unrecovered from overfishing and the impact of the 2011 tsunami, it’s likely that this will be another boom year for anyone with a fishing license for elvers along the American Eastern seaboard. As of last year, the elver fishing frenzy, combined with concerns about habitat and climate change challenges, prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing the eel nationwide as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I haven’t yet found any updates on that process.
In February 2013, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) held the lottery it introduced in 2006 to limit eel fishing. Only license holders from the previous year may apply for one of the 400 annual licenses, and newcomers are chosen by lottery only when a previous license holder permanently gives up a permit. Eel fishing has been a regular facet of life in America since humans have been fishing there. Eel, rather than turkey, was probably the main dish at Colonial Thanksgiving feasts (alongside the now-extinct passenger pigeon).
Approximately 235 permits are also issued by the Passamaquoddy Tribe, although the state government would like to reduce this number to a total of 8, setting up a conflict of a cultural and historical nature in addition to the ongoing conservation concerns. In South Carolina, 10 permits were issued.
Since last year saw widespread poaching – mostly newcomers who then sold their harvest to middlemen – a Byzantine set of regulations has been put into force. Only a certain number of nets, of specified type, placed a certain distance apart, on specific days, with size restrictions on the elvers. Newly introduced fines for transgression are high, but the potential for profit is likely to be higher if prices are anything like they were in 2012.
Elver fishing is done mostly at night, DMR doesn’t have the staff to be everywhere at the same time, so poaching will probably be rampant. This is especially true if the elver run looks more plentiful to the eye of the fisherman than it does to the conservationist. As one fisherman was quoted as saying last year, “I’ve never seen so many elvers. There’s no shortage here.”
Four newly available permits were up for grabs at the DMR lottery two weeks ago. 5000 people applied. It seems a little unlikely that all 4996 people who went away empty-handed will refrain from elver fishing this year.
Reuters article – A gold rush for Maine’s baby eel fishermen
DMR Eel Factsheet