The secretive and slippery world of glass eel fishing 

Our Lips are Sealed

The night before my scheduled interview with a fisherman, I get a text that reads: "sorry decided not to do article can't help our suffering fishery please don't use my info." When I ask if his buyer will at least speak to me, I'm told he's out too. Another man relays the message that even if I were his brother and writing this article, he wouldn't be a part of it. No one else is willing to talk.

There isn't anything illegal going on here, but I may as well be talking about Watergate. My (now completely anonymous) source is an uncooperative version of Deep Throat. Or maybe he's Deep Sea Throat, because the taboo subject that's got these insiders so buttoned up is eels. Specifically, elver eels.

What's an elver eel? Also called a glass eel, basically elver eels are just baby American eels and they're big business. In 2015 Maine elver eel fishermen broke a new price record, selling elver eels at $2,500 a pound during a high-demand season when fishermen struggled to meet quota. South Carolina and Maine are the only places in the U.S. where it's legal to fish them, thus the secrecy. But more on that later.

click to enlarge TIMOTHY BANKS
  • Timothy Banks

Elver eels are raised to adulthood before they get eaten and usually are used in sushi as slices of eel (unagi, the Japanese word for eel, on menus) and in eel sauce on said sushi — that's almost exclusively what they're used for here in America. In many Asian countries, eels are a delicacy — Japan alone consumes 70 percent of the world's supply — and they are so beloved that the Asian stock is depleted. Asian countries want their eels, though, so they've had to look abroad. So after the South Carolina fishermen catch the elvers in fykes — long, tubular nets — a buyer purchases and ships them to Asia.

But the elver racket is an incredibly convoluted system. Rick Allyn, owner of American Eel Farm in Trenton, N.C. lays out the shipping process. "You double bag them and bring them down to about 8 degrees Celsius to induce hibernation, then you add some water, but not too much. Top it off with liquid or pure oxygen and pack them in a well-insulated box surrounded by ice packs — they stay alive for 30 to 40 hours that way. Then they are flown to Asia, usually to China where most of the eel farms are."

Though eels do not reproduce in captivity, they can be raised to adulthood, and they commence doing so right when they step off the plane, kept fat and happy in aquaculture tanks until they reach adult-size at about three years. Then, they are sold for food. Yet in the past 15 or so years, the skyrocketing popularity of sushi in America makes eels necessary in our professional kitchens, too. So in many cases, after finishing the overcomplicated process of Americans catching eels and shipping them to Asia so they can spend three years growing into food, the end result is that we, well, return-ship them and buy them back.

But while savvy elver eel fisherman had been seeing record years, prices have begun to decrease in South Carolina. In 2014, only 203 pounds of eels were reported, earning $109,000 ($536/lb). The next year was even sadder — 132 pounds at $49,000 ($371/lb). One of the first things Deep Sea Throat tells me is that the money is terrible. He says the highest he was paid this season was only $70/lb, and he wasn't catching much. Compared to the Maine reports of prices climbing to $2,500/lb last year, it seems like there's been some mistake in calculations. Allyn explains the discrepancy.

"The buyers are generally coming straight from Japonica Japanese eel season, and when they finally get to South Carolina at the end of March, the demand just isn't that high," Allyn says. Endangered Japanese eels are the most highly prized eel in Japan. Asian fishermen catch migrating glass eels between December and March and sell them to eel farmers. "Maine lucks out because their season runs until June, so they can meet demand at a time when no one else is selling," he says.

Another reason for price discrepancy is the size of the catch. Every eel must be graded with an 1/8 inch mesh measuring tool. Whatever falls through is officially small enough to keep. But eels grow long faster than they grow wide. So very young glass eels that are little over an inch long fall through the same way 3-inch older elvers do. A buyer will pay quite a bit for a container of 2,000 tiny eels, but he'd pay significantly less if the same space in the container was occupied by only 500 larger eels. Bill Post, Diadromous Coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, says that the price is also driven by weather. "Glass eels are on the constant search for freshwater. They drift with the current. So weather patterns have a lot to do with what gets caught — and where — each year. If there are a lot of eels in one season, the demand for them isn't going to be so high, and that drives the price down." Post also points to the restrictions that have been put into place for Europe's once-booming eel industry. The European eel is critically endangered, undergoing estimated declines of 90-95 percent in the last 45 years. Concerned about the huge decline, EU-wide restrictions were imposed in 2010, making it illegal to sell European-caught eel to markets outside the EU. The lack of European eels on the world market only helped the U.S. industry.

To keep the hungry masses sated, Maine allots 400 elver fishing licenses each year, and up there the press and fisherman talk freely about the trade. There's even a Maine Elver Fishermen Association Facebook page. In South Carolina, however, only 10 licenses are given out each year — and this makes local elver eel fishermen, who just finished their season on March 31, apt to keep a low profile.

Angel Brown, commercial licensing and permitting supervisor at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, says that the identity of all licensees is protected by law and can only be revealed via a court order. The rationale is two-fold. It helps fishermen keep their successful fishing spots a secret, and it reassures the DNR that the fishermen — who by law have to document their catches and report them for conservation's sake — will be honest about their finds without fear.

"You're not going to find a lot about elver eel licenses on our website, and that's by design," says Brown. "You can't apply over the phone or online like you can for other licenses. You have to come in person to apply." Brown says that it isn't a secret that elver eel fishing exists, but with prices so high and competition so stiff, there is a higher need to control information. Every year Brown reviews the elver licensees' records, checking to make sure they weren't cited for rule-breaking or misconduct. "If they've played by the rules," she says, "they have a shot at preference, and they'll get a letter from me on November 1 asking if they want to renew their license." Because these eels are catadromous (fish born in the ocean that mature in fresh water), the fishermen must buy saltwater ($25) and freshwater ($50) licenses, plus a permit for their fyke nets ($10, up to 10 nets per season). Any non-renewed slots are up for grabs and are awarded to the waiting masses by a computer lottery. Brown says that 15 years ago she couldn't have given these licenses away, but in the past five years, she gets over 100 applications each time.

During our one brief phone call, Deep Sea Throat says that many of the eel fishermen are frustrated by the rules, some of which are fairly arbitrary. The fishermen are allowed to operate in only a very small portion of the Cooper River, and he says that area gets depleted quickly because there aren't enough eels to go around. Post says he'd love to be able to expand the territory, but it's a question of money and legislation.

But change might be on the way. In the past, regulations and restrictions made starting an eel aquaculture trade here nearly impossible. But that's changing. Just this past February, the ASMFC's American Eel Management Board announced that it approved North Carolina's Aquaculture Plan for 2016, allowing up to 200 pounds of glass eels to be harvested for aquaculture purposes. During the pilot year of the plan, which strictly prohibits the export of these eels, the state will work with ASMFC and American Eel Farm to identify viable collection sites for eels to be raised via aquaculture. The hope is that, eventually, the country could see a growth of eel farms and thus enjoy a more economically viable industry. Allyn has built a state-of-the-art facility with specialized equipment imported from Denmark, and he's thrilled that he'll finally be able to farm there.

As for his "seed" eels, Allyn says that he was relying on two South Carolina fishermen to help him catch them, but that didn't happen. So Allyn is setting his own nets and pulling his own harvest from the North Carolina waters. (He is allowed this by law, making him the only legitimate eel fisherman in that state.)

Before we hang up, Deep Sea Throat tells me emphatically that he wishes he'd never gone into the industry — he calls it a curse. He says it's an overregulated waste of time and a joke. But he's not going to give up that precious license. "You never know what'll happen next year," he says. 


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