Dec 1st 2012 | From the print edition
IN MAINE, a state better known for its lobsters, residents have recently been netting huge profits from a new aquatic source: baby eels. Surging demand from Asia pushed the price of elvers, which look rather like clear noodles, to as high as $2,600 a pound ($5,700 a kilo) during the ten-week harvesting season last spring. But rampant poaching (the correct term for catching a grown-up eel with bait is to “sniggle”, though elvers are caught with something more like a giant sieve) is now prompting authorities to crack down well in advance of next year’s season.
Restrictions on exports of European elvers, and a shortage of them in Japan after last year’s tsunami, have stoked demand for the American variety, often sold to Chinese or South Korean buyers who rear and sell them as food. In Maine, the commissioner of marine resources estimated in August that this year’s haul of about 18,000lbs had fetched nearly $40m, more than five times last year’s figure. In 2010 elver exports totalled just 3,158lbs, valued at $585,000.
This triggered a sort of gold rush, sending hundreds of people with nets into streams where the so-called glass eels typically migrate at night from the Atlantic Ocean to freshwater lakes and ponds. The state issued some 400 elver-fishing licences, and an Indian tribe provided 200 more to its members, but poaching remained widespread despite stiffer penalties enacted by legislators after prices started to climb last year. Colonel Joe Fessenden, Maine’s chief of marine law enforcement, says the poaching this year was “unbelievable”, with well over 300 documented violations, the most he has ever seen.
The appetite for elvers worries conservationists. East-coast stocks have fallen to historic lows, and the species is considered depleted because of overfishing, habitat loss, parasites and other woes, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate agency that is developing new management techniques to help reduce eel deaths. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, has been conducting a review to determine whether the American eel should now be protected as an endangered species. That could end the elver fishing in Maine and South Carolina. For now, though, elver harvesters’ profits are in need of some sniggling.
From the print edition: United States