Elvers, Economics, and the Decline of the American Eel

Life cycle of the American eel From: The Fish Site

Life cycle of the American eel From: The Fish Site

The world market for the magically-named ‘elver’, the young glass eel that is an immature stage of the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), has recently skyrocketed, though not for the first time. The small, clear squirmers, approximately 5 centimeters (2-3 inches) long, used to sell for USD 25 / pound. The current price is up to $2000 / pound. The appetite for young eel is high in Asia, mostly in Japan, and over the past few decades, they have fished up and consumed (Japan accounts for 70% of the world’s eel market). Local eel stocks of the Anguilla japonica are considered depleted, hence the market for the American variety – the glass eels are sold and shipped not just for direct consumption, but as stock from which to grow adult eels.

The problem for eels and their continued survival in the wild is their complex and lengthy maturation cycle (the females ony reach sexual maturity after eight years). The creature is a wonder of movement and change, and as a result, not much is known about its entire life cycle when it comes to habitat and needs. This makes it difficult to breed and farm, which is why the adult eel have been overfished, and the young are being harvested to farm into adulthood.

Full disclosure: I have consumed and enjoyed eel, from Japan to New York City to Hamburg and Paris. The only kind of eel I did not enjoy was young eel, which I had served to me in Kawasaki, Japan back in the 1980s: A seedy local bar, a large countertop fishbowl, a sieve that scooped out the wrigglers before my eyes and splashed an entire lot of them, unordered by me and also still alive, directly onto a hot grill and then onto my plate a few seconds later. Suffice it to say I’m glad I wasn’t sober at the time.

Challenges for the survival of the American eel are more manifold than a simple sieve and a hot grill, but just as lethal.

The elvers that bring in big money tend to aggregate in narrow coastal areas where they are easily accessible by anyone with a net; they are harvested prior to sexual maturity, so their reproductive potential is removed from the ecosystem; annual harvesting means that generations of potential breeding stock is lost. Add to this other environmental factors due to climate change and habitat encroachment (esp. hydroelectric turbines, dams).

What interests me here, though, is the way the Anguilla rostrata’s economic viability provides a pristine window into the intersection of global markets, poverty, lack of biological study, and biodiversity.

The American eel is a fascinating creature, and I suspect that much of the mystery still surrounding it is due to its snaky appearance, its nocturnal habits, and the instability of the economic market for the stocks. Also, it moves around, and isn’t easy to track. What role does the eel play in terms of its long life and travels through a variety of systems? It feeds on insect larvae and small fish, it is a main food source for top tier predators such as eagles, and as for the rest of it, well – that would require more study.

The native Asian stocks of local eels are all but gone due to overfishing. The little that is known about the wild stocks of American eels, and it isn’t much, indicate the species should be listed as endangered. This process is difficult, however, because currently the issuance of fishing licenses, as well as the control over stocks, is on a state-by-state basis rather than under federal jurisdiction.

So when the price of eel goes up, all kinds of people who have never fished for an eel except maybe by accident, or using elvers as bait for larger prey, are out at night with a flashlight and a net, hoping to strike it rich. Gold rush thinking at this level is rarely the territory of the rich – it is those living on the margins, for whom a quick windfall could be life-changing, who are wading into frigid and treacherous waters at night. Lack of oversight combined with deep financial need is never a good thing for fragile species or ecosystem, whether it’s eels, exotic hardwoods, or elephant tusk, or shark fins.

In a neat narrative twist, many of the elvers harvested from the shores of Maine or South Carolina, currently the only two US states that allow for more than a handful of fishing licenses on an annual basis, may end up on American and European plates after being shipped to China for farming into adulthood and then back to Western markets for sale.

By the time more is known about the eel, it may be too late. They remind me a bit of the sad oyster dilemma faced by the Walrus and the Carpenter in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter

“‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:

      I deeply sympathize.’

With sobs and tears he sorted out

      Those of the largest size,

Holding his pocket-handkerchief

      Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

      You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

      But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

      They’d eaten every one.”

There are a couple of excellent articles out now on the topic, including this beautiful piece by Susan Hand Shetterly, The Incredible Edible Eel.

A post about traditional cultures fishing for glass eel in Taiwan. The threat of overfishing from a Japanese culinary perspective.

For me, though, this is one more case of learning to try and eat locally, in season, and ignore food fads.

As for those driven to the water in search of writhing glass gold, I hope our economic future has more to offer them than we do the American eel.

UPDATES: Here, here, and here.