Glimmering Jewels

A sea sapphire in motion. Image via Sploid

A sea sapphire in motion.
Image via Sploid

A tiny iridescent copepod (Sapphirina copepod) has been making its way around the web lately in a lovely now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t fashion not unlike its appearance in the natural habitat. Invisible unless hit at the right angle by light, they are described by those who have seen them as making the water look like its been scattered with jewels. Researcher RR Helm, who wrote a wonderful piece on these creatures in Deep Sea News, has dubbed them ‘sea sapphires’.

A lot of the time I feel like I’m looking out over vast expanses of space where the news is all pretty much the same, most of it not good, and then there’s a flicker, or maybe two, of something that is worth celebrating. And not just RR Helm‘s lovely writing.

For example, there’s good news on one of my pet topics, the American eel: The annual season for harvesting valuable eel young, the elvers, will soon be upon us.

American eel (Anguilla rostro.) Image: Sidhat

American eel (Anguilla rostro.)
Image: Sidhat

Concern about steep declines in the American eel population has prompted the The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to issue strict catch limits being placed on the elver harvest this year, with the overall permitted catch down 35% from last year, when there were no restrictions.

Tiny jewel copepods from Panama Photo: Arthur Anker/Flickr

Tiny jewel copepods from Panama
Photo: Arthur Anker/Flickr

I won’t go on at length about the complex role of the American eel in the Atlantic ecosystem, how the debate over elver harvesting reflects a number of state vs. tribal conservation conflicts, nor about how little is known about the eel and the status of its population, nor how these juvenile eels are caught to be sold halfway around the world because Asian eel stocks are utterly depleted.

The fact is, a catch quota is a good start to slowing down the overfishing of these animals while their actual status is still under examination.

And so there’s a flash of color, of positive news, in the sea. The hope that if I keep watching, I’ll always see more.

Maybe even an entire sea of jewelled water.

ROV frame grab of the sparkling layer of Sapphirina copepods at about 40 meters (130 feet).  Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

ROV frame grab of the sparkling layer of Sapphirina copepods at about 40 meters (130 feet).
Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

Elvers Wait

I’ve written several times before regarding the harvesting of elvers, the young of the American eel. It’s time for another update.

Once numerous, eel populations have dropped over the past hundred years due to a number of factors. Most of these have to do with man-made changes to the eel migration routes along the rivers of the eastern North American coastline.

More recently, there have been concerns about the possible overfishing of elvers, which are harvested and sold to stock eel aquaculture farms in Asia.



According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Canadian assessments of the American eel population levels have shown a 90% decline and as of 2007 the eel has been listed as Endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act. Elver harvesting is very strictly limited.

South of the Canadian border, however, the economic promise of high elver prices in a depressed economy has proven a strong incentive for delaying any far-reaching decisions on further regulations and licensing restrictions.

As reported in Maine’s Portland Herald: “The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) eel management board voted to postpone passing new regulations that would go into effect in 2014, opting instead to vote on new rules next spring that would be effective in 2015, (according to) commission spokeswoman Tina Berger.

“In the interim, state officials will work with eel fishermen and dealers in Maine to create a plan that results in next spring’s catch being 25 percent to 40 percent smaller than this year’s spring harvest.””

A handful of elvers Photo: AP via Portland Press

A handful of elvers
Photo: AP via Portland Press

And from the Bangor Daily News: ““There are no specific requirements imposed by the [ASMFC eel] board” on how the cuts are to be achieved, Berger said. “Maine will report back to the board in February regarding its intended plan of action.”

“Patrick Keliher, commissioner of DMR (Maine Department of Marine Resources), said (…) the delay in adopting new rules will allow regulators to include the most recent data on the elver fishery.

“This decision will also give me time to work with [the] industry to find common ground and an approach forward,” Keliher said.

“According to ASMFC officials, new requirements in an updated fishery management plan for the American eel fishery could include the allowance of glass eel fisheries in states where harvest is currently prohibited, a coastwide quota, monitoring requirements, enforcement measures and associated penalties, quota transferability and timely reporting.””

Eel fyke net Source: FishingTackle

Eel fyke net
Source: FishingTackle

New meetings between Maine state officials and fishermen have been taking place this month, during which the possibility of requiring licensed fishermen to record all sales via an electronic swipe card is being discussed.

Developing a state-wide plan must also include negotiating traditional elver fishing rights held by the Passamaquoddy tribe. The state has tried to set limits on the number of licences the tribe may issue, while the tribe maintains that the state resources board does not have the authority to set limits on its licensing.

The species currently is under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act.

For me, the situation of the enigmatic American eel, endangered on one side of an international border and fair game on the other, continues to be a case study in the collision of economics, lack of scientific baselines and studies, local and regional politics, and the general lack of interest in the decline of an animal that is neither cute nor cuddly.

American eel (Anguilla rostro.) Image: Sidhat

American eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Image: Sidhat

EDIT: I have posted a brief update regarding the 2014 elver season here.

Unforeseen Gatherings


Sea ice located along the shallow continental shelf of the Bering Sea usually provides a diving board, a hunting perch and resting place for female walrus and their young. With sea ice retreating into water too deep for hunting, the walrus have had to find safer shores.

Around 10,000 of them have gathered on a small barrier island near the village of Point Lay in northwestern Alaska. They were photographed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been carrying out aerial surveys of marine mammals in areas of potential gas and oil development.

It’s not the first time the walrus have gathered on dry land to escape treacherous waters. While there, they remain more vulnerable to hunters, polar bears, and other stress factors that have, in the past, prompted deadly stampedes.

What looks like a termite mound here is actually a massive walrus pod. This clickable image can be enlarged.

Walrus gathering on Alaskan coastline Image: Stan Churches/NOAA

Here’s a quick update on a couple of topics I’ve followed over the past year:


I’ve written several times about the ongoing discussion surrounding the American eel. More specifically, the harvesting of young eel – elvers – during their spring run along the American East Coast in spring.

Prices for live elvers have skyrocketed over the past few years due to high demand in Asia, where the local populations have been decimated by overfishing, environmental pressures and natural disasters. The young eel are shipped to farms, where they are grown to adulthood and sold for consumption all over the world.

In light of how little is actually known about the current population and health of the eel population, there was talk earlier this year of tightening regulations when it comes to fishing elvers. This has, for the moment, been postponed until further notice. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American eel management board has been unable to reach a consensus, likely pushing any decision until right before the 2014 season starts in early spring.

My overview of the American eel is here, with some of the other posts here and here.

A good discussion of the current fraught situation is here.




One of the more obscure objects of international animal smuggling is the odd pangolin, the scaled anteater which inhabits its very own lonely branch on the mammalian tree of life. I’ve talked about them here, when I looked at seizures of illegal shipments.

Pangolins are in demand because their scales (which are no different in composition than fingernails or hair) are used in some traditional medicines, while pangolin meat and fetuses are served as a delicacy in some East Asian cuisines. The pangolin is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The pangolin is considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked animals, yet I find very little on conviction rates following seizures.

Six men were convicted in Malaysia this year of smuggling 150 pangolins, sentenced to a year and jail and fined. Meanwhile, over seven tons of pangolin – some of them still alive – were confiscated by customs officials in Hai Phong, Vietnam. And in a baffling decision, the seized goods were auctioned off rather than destroyed, thus re-entering the illicit market.

No mention of what happened to the smugglers themselves.

The world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group met in Singapore in July. Perhaps this will bring more attention this unique creature, hopefully before it is trafficked into extinction.

Infographic: Annamiticus



March of Tetrapods, Elver Reluctance

Image: Nathaniel DorskyVia: Notebook

Image: Nathaniel Dorsky
Via: Notebook

A couple of updates on previous topics:

March of Tetrapods

That super cool fractal tool of the Tree of Life, OneZoom, has added all tetrapods to its phylogenetic work. With 70% of all currently described four-limbed creatures crawling around on the Tree, the next additions will be plant life and fish. I’m as excited as ever to see this tool expand its open science range as well as capability of harnessing various cyberspace knowledge bases to help users access articles, images and other information (such as level of endangerment) on the species listed.

The visualization of the increasingly complex big data of modern science is a genuine challenge, and I really admire what OneZoom is doing to bring together several related areas of study.

According to their website, OneZoom will also be working together to provide visualizations with Open Tree of Life, an organization working towards providing a unifying web-based resource that unites “biological research of all kinds, including studies of ecological health, environmental change, and human disease,” which “increasingly depends on knowing how species are related to each other.”


Elver Reluctance

I’ve written here and here about the hot competition for fishing licenses for American eel in Maine. I checked on the newly hatched fishing season on elvers today. The season opened at noon on March 22 with high hopes and hotly contested elver fishing licenses. Considering the boom year of 2012, which brought in $38 million worth of elvers (an estimated haul of 19,000 lbs/8600 kg), this is no surprise.

For the moment, neither the elvers nor the weather are being very cooperative about helping this crop remain Maine’s second-most important fishing sector after lobsters. Where last year’s temperatures were almost summery at 70°F (21°C), this year is a much colder 45°F (7°C). There is still snow on the ground from the latest storm to hit the East Coast. And the amount of elvers in the stream is lower as well, according to an official of the Maine Marine Patrol. Early 2013 prices were estimated at approximately $1700/pound of elvers, a little under a dollar per glass eel. Last year, the top price early in the season was $2000/lb. Once the elvers are shipped to the interim destination that awaits them (before a dinner plate, that is), the price can go to up to $30,000/lb. for them once they are grown.

The American eel has been considered for listing as an endangered species on and off for the last twenty years, but without concrete knowledge of the actual population size (I have read various estimates that range from ‘millions’ to ‘billions’), it’s difficult to say just where they stand. A bounty of elvers one year might mean the population is stable and healthy; it might also have been a birth boom year, and by harvesting several million of the young, long-term effects might impact the population several years down the line when there aren’t sufficient adults to mate. Last year I read an estimate that at $2000/lb., elvers were going for a dollar apiece. That’s 2000 elvers per pound, which means last year’s harvest removed something on the order of 38 million elvers from potential adult population of the future. (Admittedly, 2000 elvers/pound seems like a large number, but it’s the only one I was able to find.) For an eel population in the billions, that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. For a population in the millions, that’s a lot of elvers.

For the fishing industry, it’s a gold rush. As one commenter says on the online news site for Maine’s The Bangor Daily News, “This seems like a once in a lifetime deal. Also…a bad night at fishing is still better than a good day at work!!”

The current boom in elver prices is a real time view of differing perspectives when it comes to species management.

One side sees abundance, the other uncertainty.




United States Fish & Wildlife Service – American Eel page

Differing perspectives here and here.