Elver Prices Driving Interest in Markets and Resource

by Fishermen’s Voice Staff

The prices being paid for glass eels has made them front page news and a fishery of interest to many. These 4 inch transparent young eels headed for inland waters, were on no ones radar screen before the Asian markets that raise them to maturity found their resource declining 20 years ago.

In the eastern U.S. glass eels are taken with fine mesh nets either set at stream outlets to the sea or with dip nets. China, Taiwan and for the first time this year South Korea buy the young glass eels and raise them to market size, about 12”, in 18 months. They are then sold to Japan for sale in restaurants and markets.

Some have blamed the recent tsunami in Asian for the shortage. Tsunami may have made things worse but they are not the cause. Over fishing, development and pollution in Asia are more likely the culprits.

Recent calls for tighter restrictions on harvests in the U.S. are largely in response to the resent Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Committee assessment of the eel resource. The assessment is done every 5 years and the one released last month reported a diminished stock. Published reports of harvesters getting $950 to $1800 a pound for glass eels is what the general public knows of the resource.

Most eastern states have a baited pot fishery for mature eels. The trap mesh size allows the smaller male eel to escape and the 16 inch females are caught.. Gail Wippelhauser, an eel scientist at the Maine DMR and ASMFC technical committee member said the technical committee recommended using a smaller trap opening to keep out larger egg bearing females in the mid Atlantic states where there is a large adult eel harvest. However, to make an impact it was calculated that all the females would have to be let go.

The eel resource in Maine is regulated in two ways. The ASMFC has an eel plan and a set of regulations. Maine also has regulations that include seasonal closures, days out, a fixed number of licenses, and regulations on the kind and amount of gear allowed each fisherman. There is no official reporting beyond end of the month statements from dealers and no total allowable catch.

Recent prices have not changed the number of licenses but it has incentivized the use of those licenses that until now were not being used, said Diedre Gilbert at the Maine DMR.
A bill was introduced in the Maine legislature’s current session to increase the number of licenses from 200 to 600. The bill would allow new and larger amounts of gear. Gilbert said the public hearing on the bill was unusually well attended by more than 100 people.

However, with the ASMFC assessment out, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Dept. considering the listing of eels on the endangered species list, and a non-profit environmental group backing that move, the bill did not pass as submitted. It did pass much changed and with much higher fines for illegal elver fishing.

The glass eel runs this spring have been reported to be strong.

Wippelhauser noted recorded glass eel declines as early as the 1970’s on the St. Lawrence River in Canada. The counts there went from the 100,000’s to the 1,000’s she said.

In eastern Maine the Passamaquoddy tribal nation, under regulations that allowed it, recently issued 200 licenses to Quoddy nation members. This caused a stir among some in the far eastern towns of Maine. Some non-natives called foul but the native American’s right to issue licenses goes back a few decades when Maine state regulations were different and the glass eel fishery was much less visible. Maine set a cap on the number of licenses they would issue but Passamaquoddy nation did not set a cap. The current prices led some Passamaquoddy’s to pressure the nation leaders to issue more licenses.

The income was much needed in eastern Washington county where the economy was struggling before the recent national downturn. DMR commissioner Pat Keliher met with Passamaquoddy tribal leaders and explained the ASMFC assessment results. An agreement was reached with the tribe and they agreed to not issue any more licenses to nation members.
Anthony Clement a Passamaquoddy Indian from Perry, Maine Said, “critics who speak of pressure on the elver resource by native Americans need to be aware of the money elver fishermen are putting into the local economy and know that the state issued a large number of licenses as well. He added,”Not everyone with a license is catching large numbers of glass eels. It requires skill, knowing how, when and where to catch the glass eels”, said Clement.

It’s been Clement’s first year fishing elvers after being taught how fish by an experienced fisherman. He said he has already had his gear molested twice by poachers. He is also aware of poaching problems like this in other parts of the Maine coast.

Wippelhauser said the high prices have set off an alarm for regulators. Maine and South Carolina are the only states with an elver, glass eel, fishery. One of the concerns is that there has been “a lot of poaching”, said Wippelhauser. With no official identified cause for stock declines and elver fisheries closed in all but two states, poaching could be the wild card that threatens access to the resource.

Study of the eel resource is difficult because it is a single species.

The glass eels swim to lakes, ponds and rivers where they can spend up to 17 years before swimming back out to return to the Sargasso Sea where they came from as larval spawn. The Sargasso Sea is a few hundred miles approximately due east of Florida.

The oval area of the Atlantic is several hundred miles wide. All the eels on the east coast of the U.S are a single species. The eels that migrate to Europe are a different species although they also spawn in the Sargasso Sea. The European eels spawn in the eastern Sargasso and the U.S. Spawn in the western Sargasso Sea.