International Eel Smuggling Scheme Centers On Maine

Originally published on May 22, 2017 10:56 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's been a crime spree in Maine - at the center, elvers - young eels worth $1,500 a pound. More than a dozen men have been arrested for poaching elvers, nearly all pleading guilty. To tell us more, we're joined by Bill Trotter, who is a fishery and environmental reporter with the Bangor Daily News. Hi.

BILL TROTTER: Hi, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. First explain what an elver is. And how are they fished?

TROTTER: Elvers are baby eels. The adults breed out in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Sargasso Sea. And every spring, the baby eels swim to shore. They're very small. They're translucent. They're like a string of spaghetti. And as they swim to shore, they swim upstream into fresh water. And they're fished along the tidal waterways between the ocean and lakes and ponds.

SHAPIRO: You basically just wade out into the water with a net and scoop them up, right?

TROTTER: Yeah. Some fishermen have fixed nets that they attach to the riverbank, and it's like - shaped like a big funnel, and the elvers just swim up into the funnel. But other fishermen have poles and nets on the end, and they stand there in their hip waders and dip them in the water to catch the elvers.

SHAPIRO: Why are they worth so much money? I mean $1,500 a pound - that's crazy.

TROTTER: It is a lot of money, and it's been a real boon for the fishery here in Maine and for the state of Maine, which is only 1 of 2 states that permit elver fishing. There's a big demand in the Far East for eels for seafood like unagi that you get at your sushi restaurant. And the supply has gone down in Japan and in Europe of these eels. The populations have gone down. So the importers in China, Korea, Japan have relied more on importing eels from America.

SHAPIRO: How has elver fishing in Maine changed since all of this began unfolding?

TROTTER: Elver fishing in Maine was a pretty sleepy little fishery. It doesn't require a lot of equipment. You don't need a boat. You don't need a lot of capital investment like you would if you're fishing for ground fish for lobster. And it was fairly small. Only a few hundred fishermen used to fish for elvers by the side of these tidal waterways. And then the price went up enormously in 2011 because of a combination of things - the declining populations in Japan and in Europe. The earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011 off the coast of Japan wiped out a bunch of aquaculture ponds in Japan.

Nobody has figured out how to breed eels in captivity, so they all have to be wild-caught. And then they're transported at this very young age when they're very small and easier to transport to Japan and Korea and China and raised in these agriculture ponds to adult size when they're then harvested for the seafood market.

SHAPIRO: Is this fishery in danger. With such a high price for these baby eels, it seems almost inevitable that they would be overfished.

TROTTER: When all these poaching incidents were occurring was earlier this decade, and the fishing was - is still only allowed in Maine and in South Carolina for the baby eels. And at the time that the poaching was widespread, there were no - there was no catch limit in the state of Maine. In 2014, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the state of Maine implemented catch limits to help protect the population. And a couple years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was looking into whether they ought to list the species as endangered, and they decided that it was healthy enough that they didn't have to do that.

SHAPIRO: Bill Trotter of the Bangor Daily News, thanks for joining us.

TROTTER: Thank you, Ari. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "ELECTRIC FEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.