A Frenzy for Glass Eels
In the middle of the night in Millville, N.J., someone stole a van—not for the van, but for the tanks stashed in back, which were set up to hold thousands of baby American eels. When the thief realized the tanks were empty, he left the van in a lot.
On a quiet creek off the Delaware River, a fisherman arriving at his favorite spot became angered when he came upon someone else netting the tiny eels. He left, but not before shooting at the other fisherman's truck with a shotgun.
In Japan, smoked eel is prized, especially in sushi. Because eels have been overfished in the Far East, dealers buy them in the United States, in the larval stage, and whisk them by plane to Asian eel farms, where they're grown to market size.
Connecticut is one of only four states in the East where fishing the clear, 3-inch-long "glass eels," or elvers, is legal, although there have not been the volatile scenes here that have occurred over the past few years in southern New Jersey.
New Jersey outlawed glass-eel fishing last year. On Monday, that state's Assembly passed a bill to reopen the fishery, but the state Senate has yet to vote.
A debate is brewing on whether to close all glass-eel fishing on the East Coast. On one side are those who fear the "gold rush" to sell glass eels to Asian markets, for $400 and more a pound, will wipe them out. On the other side are those who think laws can reign in potential chaos and protect the eels.
Data is sketchy. Officials suspect many glass-eel catches aren't reported because they're netted illegally. Connecticut requires an in-state commercial fishing license to catch eels, but few commercial fishermen are doing it here .Yet the state is watching rivers for fishermen who might be taking advantage of what some believe is a tremendous influx of glass eels from mid-March to late April.
'A gold rush mentality'
The wild rush to net the eels in America started around 1990, but the scene exploded three years ago, conservation officers say. "Sixteen months ago, I had never heard of a glass eel," said Terry Tarr, deputy assistant regional director for law enforcement for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Tarr said he learned that, for several years, many people have been fishing for glass eels, often without regulatory authorities knowing it.
In Connecticut, few knew about the practice until about four years ago, when a glass-eel buyer contacted Lance Stewart of Noank, who conducts research for the University of Connecticut's agriculture school and sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Later, he was involved in writing regulations for glass-eel fishing, which now restrict the practice here to commercial fishermen.
There's been a moratorium on new commercial licenses here for several years, and Stonington fisherman Arthur Medeiros said he doesn't know one person who is netting eels. Sate Department of Environmental Protection officers said they have worked hard to learn where eel fishermen go—rivers and tributaries late at night. Last April four men, two of them from Maine, were convicted of illegal eel fishing in Fairfield County.
Adam O'Hara, the senior resident agent in charge of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's northeastern operations, said that in recent years the government tracked exports of eels in amounts about three times those reported by fishermen. He said 1995 was the peak year for eel exports, but that the dropoff has acted to up the price. He said it's a cash business and that agents have watched a car sitting in a parking lot where 50 people were lined up to sell glass eels.
"I've never seen this type of gold-rush mentality for a native resource," O'Hara told the marine fisheries commission last spring.
To read the rest of the story, visit The Day's archives, which will be completed in 2010. The newspaper's website is at www.theday.com.
About This Article
This article first appeared in The Day, the daily newspaper in New London, Connecticut where I was the environmental reporter, in 1998. While working on something else, I learned that the spring run of baby eels had created a frenzy of poaching from the mid-Atlantic to Maine, because Asians had overfished the young eels—known as glass eels—in Asia. In their attempt to stock fish farms, they were paying amazing prices for them. I won a first-place award in environmental writing from the New England Press Association for this reporting.