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.

Unforeseen Gatherings

Walrus

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:

Elvers

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.

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Pangolin

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

 

 

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: dcrt.org.uk

Elver – approx. 7 cm/3 inches long
Image: dcrt.org.uk

More:

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

DMR Eel Factsheet