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Special Feature: Slippery stuff

From Down East to the Far East, tiny glass eels fetch big money

By Melissa Wood
August 01, 2013

Elver exporters sift their prized glass eels like the gold they’ve been recently compared to. During a glass eel transaction, the translucent creatures wriggled as they were poured into a sifter inserted on the top of a bucket. The cunning elvers quickly snaked through the sifter and into the water below.

“They’re so lively and energetic, they immediately find a hole and go down through,” says Tim Sheehan of the Gulf of Maine, a seafood dealership in Pembroke, Maine.

Two men who Sheehan identified as Jason and Kevin of American Elver Depot in Flushing, N.Y., had arrived at Sheehan’s on the evening of Monday, May 13. Once the elvers were inspected and found to be alive and well, Jason strained them out of the bucket and placed them onto a sterile dish drainer and weighed them. Next, the eels (Anguilla rostrata) were separated into plastic bags with about 2 pounds in each. Oxygen was blown into the bags, making them puff up like balloons before they were placed into shipping boxes.

It takes about 2,400 of these tiny glass eels to make a pound, but every one counts. When prices peaked for Maine fishermen in 2012 they were worth about $1 each. Though prices were down this season, which ran from March 22 to May 31, they were still quite valuable, worth about $1,700 per pound. 

That day, Sheehan, who buys from elver fishermen Down East, had about 18 pounds of elvers for pickup. American Elver Depot had set up shop in Ellsworth, Maine, during the state’s 10-week season, and purchased from Sheehan about twice a week. Jason and Kevin would not provide their last names or answer questions about where the elvers were going. A follow-up phone call to their company led to an immediate hang-up. 

But those baby eels were likely on their way to an Asian fish farm to be raised for Japanese diners, who consume about 70 percent of the global eel supply. That’s where they’re all going right now, according to Mitch Feigenbaum, owner of Delaware Valley Fish Co. in Norristown, Pa.

“The glass eels that we buy pretty much all go to Asia,” says Feigenbaum, who adds his company is the largest U.S. elver exporter. “I’ve seen the eel farms in China and Korea as well as Japan. The ones in China are huge, massive. Some of them stretch as far as the eye can see. A lot of them right now are dwindling just because there’s not enough glass eels around the world to keep them all going.”

To understand what’s happening in Maine requires a global perspective. Eels became a hot commodity in the 1990s after supplies of Japan’s native species (Anguilla japonica) became diminished and dealers discovered that European (Anguilla anguilla) and American eels were very similar to the Japanese ones — and cost much less. 

“Most of the dealers in the business were very unscrupulous; they would sell it to a farmer as japonica. It took years before the farmers in Asia really caught on to what was going on,” says Feigenbaum.

After farms suffered through high mortality rates caused by differences in food and preferred water temperatures between the species, elver prices plummeted. In fact, the Asian market for American elvers was closed when Feigenbaum began selling them in 2001. His first customers were in Spain, where the Basque community values cooked glass eel as a delicacy important in religious rites. French chefs, who refer to them as piballes, also consider them culinary treasures. 

The more lucrative Asian market for American elvers, however, came back. “Over time my colleagues and I made several trips to Asia and started teaching the farmers that our species was a viable species for aquaculture as long as it wasn’t handled in this fraudulent way by mixing with other species,” explains Feigenbaum.

Improvements in farming methods and growth in the Chinese economy brought the U.S. export market back to life, but Feigenbaum believes the “single-biggest” factor was Europe’s ban on elver exports four years ago.

The eels will continue to be in demand until farmers figure out how to reproduce them, an effort that Japanese researchers are working on diligently, says Feigenbaum. 

“The whole reason eels are valuable is that the eel cannot be bred in captivity. I believe that it’s only a matter of time before the Japanese figure out how to raise eels — they’ve already done it in the lab. But according to published reports I’ve seen they just can’t produce the food to keep the glass eels alive economically yet,” he says.

Eels are catadramous, meaning they’re born at sea and then take about a year to swim to freshwater rivers where they’ll spend their lives until they return to the sea once more to spawn. “What it’s eating in the wild that year is extremely microscopic stuff called marine snow,” which Feigenbaum describes as plankton broken down into even smaller pieces. It is incredibly expensive to make in the lab, he adds, though researchers are trying.

“The future of the glass eel fishery is jeopardized by that research more than anything else,” he says. “Then the value of the glass eel will go down.”

Before that demand goes away, Feigenbaum says other states have also been looking into opening up glass eel fisheries. As a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission’s (ASMFC) American eel management board, he believes the fishery should remain small.

“My position as an ASMFC commissioner is no state should be allowed to enter the glass eel business in the future unless they demonstrate they’re reducing or eliminating their yellow (adult) eel harvest so that the impact on the fishery becomes neutral or actually becomes less,” he says. 

With Maine being one of the only resources (South Carolina is the only other state with a licensed fishery), its eel fishery has become the second-most lucrative in the state, behind only lobster. In 2012 the 20,764 pounds landed were worth $38 million. By comparison, the elver fishery was worth $7.5 million in 2011 and half a million dollars in 2010. Though numbers aren’t final for 2013, they’re estimated to be about 18,000 pounds worth roughly $33 million.

Maine’s elver gold rush has drawn international media attention — a reality series, “Eel of Fortune” was shot this spring by a production team from cable
network Animal Planet — and temptation for poachers. The state’s marine patrol charged violators with 351 elver-related offenses during this year alone. To help curb poaching, the state passed a law criminalizing such offenses, which were previously civil violations. 

“The past two seasons the value was significant and so it created a lot of interest in this fishery and that was a big part of the reason the bill was passed, to strengthen the enforcement and create larger penalties that were more in keeping with the large sums of money at stake,” says Jeff Nichols, communications director for the Department of Marine Resources. 

High prices have also sparked controversy over who has the right to catch them. Just before the season started the Passamaquoddy tribe issued 575 elver
licenses, which put the state in violation of ASMFC rules that restrict the total to 744. The state invalidated all but 150 of the licenses, though tribal officials never conceded its right to do so. 

For Sheehan, the trade isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scenario. Most of his fishermen are small-timers.

“In order for me to get 30 pounds, I have to buy from 150 fishermen,” he says. 

Then there are the ones who don’t know how to handle their good fortune. Sheehan remembers one woman who brought in a half a pound in a bucket that she had stored in the trunk of her black car in 70-degree weather for days.

“They looked perfect, but they were all dead,” he says.

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 


Find other SeaFood Business articles discussing sea lice here.

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