Failed Elver Balance

As the season comes to an end for harvesting the young American eel known as elver, I thought I would revisit a topic I’ve often written about on ChampagneWhisky. The American eel was once a remarkably abundant marine animal along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. Along with its close cousins, the Japanese eel and the European eel, it was so plentiful in coastal waterways that people could go out with pillowcases and easily fill them with eel.

The American eel was a staple of early Colonial life, and was the main dish served at early Thanksgiving meals. Japanese eel was so popular that it was fished to near extinction in the 20th century, and the same holds true for the European eel.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland.
Illustration: Charles Folkard

These days, elvers are fished in a very limited number of locations, during a short season – transparent, around the size of an earthworm, they are sold by the pound for shipping to aquaculture facilities in Asia. The appetite is large, the supply of local eel all but decimated outside of fish farms.

It’s not just the overfishing that is putting this mysterious animal at risk around the world. Habitat loss in the form of compromised river ways, climate change, pollution that affects reproductivity, barriers like dams or hydroelectric plants that block the progress of eels and elvers to their traditional grounds.

In Maine, where elvers represent an annual revenue of around $10 million (not counting the lucrative black market, of course), elver fishermen who hold the highly coveted and non-transferable licenses are, on the average, over the age of 50. There’s concern that their skills and knowledge won’t be transferred if the licensing process isn’t opened up to include younger newcomers via lottery.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland
Illustration: John Tenniel

In the United Kingdom, fishing for the critically endangered European elvers is highly restricted, and patrols try to control any poaching.

Here’s my question: All three major eels used for human consumption are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, or in the case of the European eel, critically endangered. These animals have complex life cycles that still hold a large measure of mystery – they breed and spawn in the ocean, they return to rivers and lakes to grow. This complex process is one reason they can’t simply be farmed like some other fish.

They traverse thousands of miles in ever smaller numbers, and if this year’s catch included 600,000 elvers, that’s half a million fewer than will now be able to keep their species alive through all the other threats.

Glass eel, unpigmented elver, post-larval stage of the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Photo: G. Verreault/Gov’t of Canada Species at Risk Registry

With all due respect to the fisheries along the eastern coast of North America, to the revived fisheries of the UK, to the aquaculture of Asian countries, maybe it’s time we lost our appetite for eel, at least for a while. Let’s grow other industries, other appetites, other revenues that aren’t carried out on the sinuous backs of ancient animals.

We think we can balance our relationship with the eel – but this won’t last.

Let the ageing fishermen of Maine record their knowledge, let the practices fade until they can, perhaps, be revived if and when the eels return.

Elver Harvest

Fyke Net

Fyke Net

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.

Elver - approx. 7 cm/3 inches longImage:

Elver – approx. 7 cm/3 inches long


Reuters article – A gold rush for Maine’s baby eel fishermen

DMR Eel Factsheet