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.

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.

Seasonal Reverse and Updates

The Jura ridge, morning run, 23 May 2013 Photo: PK Read

The Jura ridge, morning run, 23 May 2013
Photo: PK Read

I took the picture above on my run yesterday morning, 23 May. Usually around this time of year I can pull out the warm-weather running gear, shorts and a T-shirt, but yesterday I was still in long running tights and a jacket. Why? Because it was unseasonably chilly, and snow was predicted. The pictures below illustrate the next 24 hours after the first photo. So, since the season seems to be moving in reverse, I thought I’d use today to update a couple of my regular topics.

Dusting of evening snow, 23 May 2013 Photo: PK Read

Dusting of evening snow, 23 May 2013
Photo: PK Read

Update 1: Slippery Elvers

The prices for elvers, or American glass eels, aren’t quite as astronomical as they were last year in Maine (one of only two US states to issue elver fishing licences, the other is South Carolina), but they are high enough that the gold rush atmosphere is still feverish.The eel bounty of 2012-2013 is credited with boosting the economy of a state in which has seen some hard times.

This is one situation where the connection between local economics and environmental impact is clearly outlined.

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which oversees fishing regulations for the Eastern Seaboard completed a benchmark study assessing the stocks of the American eel. Although the eels migrate from a northern limit in Greenland down to a southern limit in French Guiana, all American eels in this range are considered as belonging to a single population. And as outlined by the ASMFC, the population is currently depleted.

According to an article in the Washington Post this week, “The eel management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was scheduled to vote on proposed new regulations for glass, yellow and silver eel fisheries from Maine to Florida. But after a daylong discussion, the board instead decided to delay a vote until August and form a working group to gather more information about the glass eels, which are baby eels known as elvers. Options that were under consideration for Maine’s elver fishery included keeping the status quo, closing the fishery or setting a catch quota — or a combination thereof.”

Elvers have rescued some fishermen from financial ruin. Many local fishermen in Maine are opposed to further regulations, even as some admit that the boon can’t last.

The American eel population was once so robust that the small transparent elvers created a ‘wall of glass’ in their native rivers. My feeling is that increased efforts in education and collaboration between regulators and impacted fisheries would be the first step toward ensuring that the once abundant American eel can rebound.

The 2013 elver season ends 31 May, in one week.


ASMFC benchmark studyAmerican Eel Benchmark Stock Assessment

Washington Post articleRegulators postpone new rules for Maine’s elver fishery

Boston Globa articleEel fishing has been a boon to many in Maine by Jenifer B. McKim

Previous posts here, here, here and here

Snow on the Jura ridge, 24 May Photo: PK Read

Snow on the Jura ridge, 24 May
Photo: PK Read

 Update 2: Vernon Hugh Bowman (farmer) vs. Monsanto
In a previous post, I talked about the case of Bowman, an Indiana farmer who ran afoul of seed giant Monsanto. The case went through several courts, and this year, it was argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s been a closely watched process to see whether the Supreme Court’s decision would include other patented self-replicated technologies (DNA molecules, nanotechnologies, etc.) as well as Monsanto’s soybean product, Roundup.
It’s a longish scenario, and you can check my post or the articles below for details. Basically, Bowman bought discarded seeds from a grain elevator under the assumption they would contain many discarded Roundup seeds. He then planted these seeds, harvested them (his assumption had been correct, and he had been able to use Roundup weedkiller on the soybeans without destroying them), and he replanted the results of his harvest for eight seasons. Monsanto sued him for patent infringement.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor Monsanto, but kept the decision narrow, focusing only the specifics of the case at hand rather than the larger patent discussion.
From a New York Times article: “Bowman’s lawyers argued that Monsanto’s patent rights stopped with the sale of the first crop of beans instead of extending to each new crop soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weed-killer.
Justice Kagan disagreed. “Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article,” she said. “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for such conduct.”

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety, said the ruling was wrong. “The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers,” Kimbrell said. “The court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds’ reproduction to farmers, rather than nature.”

But a soybean growers’ association said it was the correct decision. “The Supreme Court has ensured that America’s soybean farmers, of which Mr. Bowman is one, can continue to rely on the technological innovation that has pushed American agriculture to the forefront of the effort to feed a global population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050,” said Danny Murphy, president of the American Soybean Association.

This is such a complex discussion, too long for this post, but for the moment I leave it with these thoughts:

For the moment, whether or not one sides with Monsanto (and the US Supreme Court) on this argument depends less on what one thinks of Mr. Bowman’s case and his individual actions, and more on one’s views in terms of the notion of patenting living organisms, structuring agricultural practices to fit intellectual property laws that cover these patents, and to what extent one thinks that patenting is the best way of fostering innovation.


US Supreme Court decisionBowman vs. Monsanto No. 11-796

New York Times articleSupreme Court Supports Monsanto in Seed-Replication Case by Adam Liptak

Huffingtonpost article (AP) – Supreme Court Rules For Monsanto In Patent Case by Jesse J. Holland

Daily Finance articleBowman v. Monsanto: The Price We All Pay for Roundup Ready Seeds by Eamon Murphy

The CERN globe (Geneva, Switzerland), spring flowers in the front, snowy Jura range in the background - 24 May Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe (Geneva, Switzerland), spring flowers in the front, snowy Jura range in the background – 24 May
Photo: PK Read

Elvers In Hand

A handful of elvers Photo: AP via Portland Press

A handful of elvers
Photo: AP via Portland Press

Predictably, now that elver season is well underway, the poaching has begun and the first fines for illegal fishing have been issued. With prices for a pound of live young eel expected to rise to $3000 over the next week or so, it’s no surprise that poaching fines are simply the cost of doing business.  One man was caught with 41 pounds of live elvers, with an estimated value of $61,000.

A group of fisherman licensed to fish elvers have formed an advocacy group to protect the elvers and American eel from overfishing, but also from potential classification as an endangered and off-limit species. The Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association has proposed a ban on the fishing of eels in more adult stages to allow for more breeding potential, information that will undoubtedly upset recreational eel fishermen. Other sustainable management techniques, such as leaving the middle third of rivers net-free so more elvers can travel upstream, or laying in 24-hours pauses, are already practiced by licensed fishers.

To me, the first step would seem to be the one that is long overdue and which is the same step as always when it comes to wild resources: Figure out just what the actual status of the American eel population might be. We only seem to become truly interested in establishing baseline information once a given population draws our attention, and it’s been no different with the American eel.

Sun Journal article on elver poaching gangs

Lincoln County News article and Bangor Daily News article on the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association

Previous elver posts here and here

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.