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.

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

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.

Curlew Farewell

Flocks of Eskimo Curlew Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Flocks of Eskimo Curlew
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The last time an Eskimo Curlew was seen and positively identified, it suffered the same fate as when it was first officially identified and illustrated by John James Audubon himself: It was shot and then examined by an ornithologist.

Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) Source: BirdLife International

Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis)
Source: BirdLife International

It’s been exactly fifty years since that last bird was felled, and as such, it has attained a sad definition threshold for moving from the ‘Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct)’ list to that of ‘Probably Extinct’. Known breeding grounds have been empty since the late 1930’s.

So stop the clocks for just a moment and consider the once-abundant Eskimo Curlew that replaced the hapless Passenger Pigeon as the game bird of choice (until it was put under protection in 1916), ponder the swift demise of the Eskimo Curlew that once darkened skies with their density, and which disappeared with alarming and almost baffling rapidity.

It wasn’t just the hunting that led the Eskimo Curlew down that long path of no return, it was two other key factors, combined with uncontrolled hunting.

Suggested migratory route of the Eskimo Curlew. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Suggested migratory route of the Eskimo Curlew.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during its migration northward in April and May, the Eskimo Curlew depended almost exclusively on the abundant insect foods of native tallgrass and mixed grass prairies. In the late 1800s, these critical habitat patches were virtually eliminated by wholesale conversion of prairies to agricultural fields and by widespread suppression of wildfire.

“(Also), extinction of the Eskimo Curlew’s primary spring food item, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper”, played a key role.

The Eskimo Curlew branch of the Tree of Life. Search the Curlew's name to zoom in further and see its status, along with that of its nearest relatives. Source: OneZoom (Birds)

The Eskimo Curlew branch of the Tree of Life. Search the Curlew’s name to zoom in further and see its status, along with that of its nearest relatives.
Source: OneZoom (Birds)

Over on the OneZoom phylogenetic tree of life, the Eskimo Curlew is still marked in the more hopeful red of ‘Critically Endangered’ rather than the funereal ‘Extinct’ blue of the long dark night – the Curlew still hasn’t been officially declared gone for good. The State of the World’s Birds, released by BirdLife International this June, stated that one in eight bird species around the world is currently on the brink of extinction.

Perhaps a small Eskimo Curlew cluster has taken up a hermetic residence somewhere unexpected, and will surprise us all with a miraculous re-appearance. Until then, we have the famous illustration by Audubon, who prophetically compared the Eskimo curlew to the passenger pigeon while both species still filled the skies.

Wildlife artist John James Audubon's famous portrait illustration of two Eskimo curlews as seen during his 1833 research expedition to Labrador. Photograph by: Handout , Postmedia News

Wildlife artist John James Audubon’s famous portrait illustration of two Eskimo curlews as seen during his 1833 research expedition to Labrador.
Photograph by: Handout , Postmedia News


Great article on about the Eskimo Curlew and its significance on Canada.com – From endangered to extinct: the tragic flight of the Eskimo curlew by Randy Boswell


Proximity to Magnificence

bear-skin-rugs-polar-bear-F1When I was a little girl in the 1960s, a friend of my parents brought over a few unexpected gifts for me. One of the gifts was a genuine Indian tiger skin, complete with claws, head, teeth, and glass eyes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Treaty) wouldn’t come into force until 1975, almost a decade away, so there was nothing illegal about the gift.

I loved my tiger skin, and thought of it almost like a real animal or pet. It was a massive skin that covered almost the entire floor of my room, and I as a little girl, I liked to imagine that it protected me.

When I think back on how I felt, having the tatters of that splendid creature in my room, I feel guilt. And the guilt is mixed with an understanding for the appeal of these products.  It’s a proximity to and ownership, however imaginary, of the fierce magnificence of a top predator.

I’m sure that people made money all along the line that led from where the tiger was taken to where my parent’s generous friend finally bought the tiger skin. And the economics for each individual undoubtedly seemed viable – after all, the tiger was just walking around, not doing anybody any good while standing on its own four paws. But dead and skinned, it could bring in money for the trackers, the hunters, the shippers, and the middlemen. The tiger population was already under pressure back then, but that didn’t matter. And, unlike today, each of these transactions was legal.

When I read this week about the legal trade in polar bear products and the legal hunting quota for polar bear in Canada, I think back to that tiger skin. Sure, the trade is still legal, and for whatever reason, the government considers the annual hunting and sale of 600 polar bears economically viable and environmentally sustainable ‘enough’. The polar bear is not yet protected as an endangered species under CITES, it is only considered ‘threatened’ if its habitat continues to erode, if hunting continues at unsustainable levels.

Zambia recently banned the hunting of big cats within its boundaries – the amount of revenue brought in by hunting tourism is dwarfed by that of non-lethal tourism focused on observing live animals.

If the nations which allow polar bear hunting and the trade in polar bear parts were to find it economically more interesting to preserve their dwindling populations, would that make a difference to sustainable biodiversity and the survival of top predators?

The Economics of Polar Bear Hunting in Canada

Update: 7 March 2013 – The CITES conference fails to pass a ban on the export of polar bear products, handing  victory to Canada, which argued against the US and Russia-supported ban.