Left, Marine Patrol Specialist Matt Talbot checks for elver licenses at the Camden Public Landing at 1 a.m. In the parking lot behind, an elver dealer loaded with cash and packing a gun waits to buy the night’s catch. Right, An elver fisherman bundled against a long damp night at Rockport Harbor sweeps his dipnet to catch “80 cents here, 80 cents there.” Photos by C. Parrish
The eel fishery goes global
Catch as Catch Can, Part I
by Christine Parrish
It’s just after 10 p.m. when Marine Patrol Specialist Matt Talbot pulls out his black police flashlight and hooks his binoculars on his belt, which already holds a lobster measure, a clam ring, handcuffs, pepper spray, and a handgun.
“Be as quiet as possible,” he says, closing the door of the truck softly and moving fast into the dark beyond the edge of the hotel parking lot.
It’s a damp night, windless and still, the kind that absorbs light. On Route 1, a few hundred feet away, the long-haul trucks that slowed to cross the Passagassawakeag Bridge in Belfast accelerate north towards Searsport.
The map of rivers, streams and tributaries where fresh water flows into the sea that is imprinted in Patrol Specialist Talbot’s head has little to do with the commonly traveled highway. They don’t overlap much. It’s a separate world.
The intimacy of the dark woods and presence of nearby water amplifies sound and carries voices or the crunch of boots on gravel across improbable distances as if those trucks weren’t even there.
Talbot stops at the edge of the trail and turns back, whispering for me to follow slowly behind him on a narrow path through saplings and thorny shrubs. He leads us through a muddy pool and out to the edge of a downtrodden dam and looks over the edge.
Covered with dead winter grass, with the woods edging close on either side, beavers could have built the dam a half century ago. But they didn’t. It’s on electric company land. It’s man-made. On this night, the dammed pond is swollen with fresh snow melt that sluices through the gates at the top of the dam, roaring through open space and crashing into a plunge pool 40 feet below.
On the opposite bank below us, four lights are spread along the side of the river. Two are large gas-powered lights fishermen use to see into the water, the other two are smaller headlamps, bobbing with each movement. Mist from the waterfall hangs in the air, creating otherworldly halos of light around each eel fisherman.
Each man rhythmically sweeps a dip net through the black water, dipping and sweeping, again and again, then emptying the catch into a white five-gallon bucket.
The halos of light lengthen the shadows of their arms, the dip and sweep of the long-poled net; the shadow arms reach long against the backdrop of the riverbank, creating the impression of shadow puppets dancing behind a curtain of gauze.
Beyond the halos of the gas lights, it’s darker than dark.
Talbot pulls his night-piercing binoculars off his belt and scans the riverbank.
The voices of the fishermen are indistinguishable. As we watch, one of them climbs up the opposite bank and onto the dam, crossing above the water pouring through the sluice gates, and heads straight toward where we crouch in last year’s blackberry canes.
An hour earlier, when I rendez-voused with Talbot in Lincolnville Beach, I asked if the elver fishermen were armed, since the going price for baby eels was around $2,600 a pound at the beginning of the elver season. Since then, it dropped to about $1,600 a pound.
It’s still a lot of money.
Poachers are prowling the stream mouths looking for eels and bringing them in from out of state.
“There’s a lot coming into Maine,” said Marine Patrol Sergeant Rene Cloutier, who was part of the team that nabbed a New Hampshire man in April with about $100,000 worth of illegal eels at a northbound Maine Turnpike toll booth.
In Nobleboro, a thief used a dip net poked through a broken window of an elver dealer’s shop to steal $10,000 worth of eels out of a holding tank. And there had been rumors of gangs targeting elver fishermen, either for their money or their eels. Up until late April, when a new law prohibited elver dealers from paying elver fishermen in cash, the dealers were carrying tens of thousands of dollars to pay fishermen for their catch, usually in the early morning hours in dark parking lots.
“I assume everyone is armed,” Talbot said. He was wearing a bullet-proof vest.
“Do you skulk through the woods and spy on people?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” he said. “If you drive up and walk down with your flashlight, you aren’t going to catch anybody. If there is somebody down there without a license, they are going to be running through the woods before you know what’s going on.”
Talbot picks a spot and camps out for a while, watching fishermen through his binoculars and collecting potential evidence before he goes down to see if the fishermen are licensed and legal.
“Well, then. Let’s go skulk through the woods and spy on people,” I said.
That is what we are doing, skulking and spying and on the verge of being tripped over by an edgy elver fisherman who is probably armed and doesn’t know we are there.
I pull the dark hood on my black fleece jacket over my head and sink into the blackberry canes. Talbot crouches further down and shields his face with his hat.
The man reaches our side of the dam and, not noticing us, scrambles down with his dip net and his bucket to the riverbank below.
Eels spend most of their lives, which can last for decades, in freshwater lakes and streams. At some point — sooner for males and considerably later for females — they head downstream, changing from yellow to silver and losing the ability to eat on the way to the sea. If they don’t get chewed up by hydro-electric dams — and it is assumed that many do — their destination is somewhere south of Bermuda where they breed and die.
From that one breeding spot, the resulting tiny larvae are scattered by currents from the North Atlantic to Brazil.
By the time the baby eels have sniffed out clean streams and are able to swim, up to a year has passed and they have grown into tiny glass eels less than three inches long. They look like a short Chinese cellophane noodle with a couple of black sesame seeds for eyes.
In Maine, they make their coastal approach at night from early April to July, swimming with the incoming tide. If the tide isn’t right, they lay low in saltwater. The fishery in Maine is the only viable elver fishery left in the world, as far as anyone can tell. Maine landed almost 21,000 pounds of glass eels and elvers worth about $40 million in 2012.
The price paid to elver fishermen ratcheted up from $24 a pound in 2001 to a high of $2,600 a pound in 2012, with some dealers paying $3,000 for a pound of the tiny eels. The price is the result of a combination of factors, including an international prohibition against eel fishing in Europe due to overfishing. The Japanese also love to eat eels, preferably braised or broiled. Japan put their eel on a national endangered species red list in February. A combination of overfishing, habitat loss and the 2011 tsunami are to blame.
A few companies have started to exploit Caribbean and South American streams for elvers, but the fishery is still new, the streams not so very clean, the permitting process unpredictable and often corrupt.
That leaves Maine.
Talbot counts five men on the opposite bank, plus the one below us. Six men.
He hands me the binoculars for a look. The floats for the submerged funnel-like net, known as a fyke net, are bobbing out from the opposite bank. The net itself is invisible beneath the surface.
Fyke nets can only be set one third of the width of the stream, on either side. The middle third of the river or stream, the center of the flow, is off limits. It’s a conservation measure designed to allow some baby eels to pass by and make their way, somehow, up the vertical face of the dam.
They manage to do just that: climb a stream up a vertical surface, trailing each other like bicyclists drafting other bikes in a road race, using the advantage of someone else in the lead to break the resistance. But they don’t always manage and Maine has made no real effort to get the babies upstream by providing eel ramps or simply lugging them above the dams in buckets and letting them swim free.
Irish eel ramps, which are simple and inexpensive to make, would be a good conservation measure, according to Wayne Alden of Cushing, a former elver fisherman who would dearly love to have a license now, but hasn’t won the lottery held by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) that allowed for 29 new licenses to be issued.
It would also allow the state to collect more reliable data on elvers, said Alden.
“The ramp part goes into the water, it’s covered with a felt and a trickle of water and they crawl up over and they drop into this bucket where it is sitting in the fresh water,” said Alden. “They could take a count, measure the yearlings, get the data from this bucket, then release them over the first obstruction,” said Alden, who, like many coastal fishermen, believes the elver population is far from depleted and is, in fact, booming.
But even the scientists who deem the American eel fishery biologically depleted agree that the data on the American eel, which can live for up to 40 years and has never actually been seen to breed in the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda, is full of holes.
They analyzed the data that has been collected from all life stages of the eel and in all the coastal Atlantic states; the result shows a general declining trend in the population along the length of the Atlantic coast.
But Maine is different, argues Alden and Merton Sawyer, another former elver fisherman who makes fyke nets and dip nets but is not now licensed to fish for eels.
The DMR doesn’t collect enough elver data, said Sawyer, echoing what elver fishermen say up and down the Maine coast.
It’s true. Currently, the DMR collects elver data at one site: Boothbay Harbor.
Sawyer suggested the DMR could partner with elver fishermen and the University of Maine to collect data, using cameras or locked cages around Irish eel ramps to deflect theft.
“They aren’t doing it here. They’re doing it in Europe,” said Alden. “If you stuck those in the middle third of 15 rivers in Maine, you would get some good data and you could really see how many eels are coming here.”
There is a great deal of urgency to Alden’s point of view. The eel fishery is being considered for closure by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC plans to rule on the eel by May 21, 2013. Maine has one vote on the 15-member commission.
Added to that, the American eel, which is under review for being listed as a federally threatened species, is being pushed into the spotlight by a conservative organization, the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability (CESAR), which appears to be an environmental advocacy organization based in California.
CESAR sued the federal government for taking too long in their review of the eel for listing as a threatened species. Their suit claims the eel is in danger.
Instead, CESAR seems to be engaged in a political ploy.
There is an important back-story to this. CESAR is headed by Craig Manson, who is a top executive at Westlands Water District, which controls water to 600,000 acres of agribusiness land in California’s Central Valley. It is the largest water district in the country and a thirsty one that does not have a stellar environmental track record, nor does it look fondly on the Endangered Species Act.
Manson was also the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior under President George W. Bush. During Manson’s government tenure, science was tinkered with to make species less likely to be listed as threatened or endangered.
Suing to have the American eel listed as threatened appears to not be motivated by the fate of the fish. Instead, it appears that CESAR is trying to force the back door open for Congress to revise the Endangered Species Act so the law is friendlier to agribusiness interests. The halls of Washington, Wall Street commodities, the heart of Central Valley agribusiness; it’s all a long ways from Maine, with its streams supplied by clean water filtered through forests that cover over 90 percent of the state.
It is the most forested state in the country and the glass eels, ignorant of global trade, climate disruptions and corporate chess games, like it that way.
Part 2 — Next week in The Free Press Catch as Catch Can: Maine and the Global Eel Trade
Left, elver exporter Mitchell Feigenbaum argues that catch data proves the eel population is not in danger, but growing. Right, “I’d like you to come down where I live,” a Downeast dip-netter tells regulators. “The eels are there. Millions of them.” Photos by C. Parrish
Catch as Catch Can, Part II
As American eels swarm towards shore, they get caught in a regulatory net
by Christine Parrish
As midnight approaches, Marine Patrol Specialist Matt Talbot stops behind a small white pine and pulls his binoculars off his belt.
The bowl-shaped cove where the river meets the saltwater is ringed with fishermen dipping their long-handled nets to catch the tiny eels on the incoming tide. It is quiet enough to hear the gurgle of the nets being lifted from the water, the creak of a bucket handle, a bucket thunked down on the bank. It wouldn’t surprise me if the fishermen could hear us breathing.
This is the second stop on our elver-fishing reconnaissance. At the first, Talbot recognized all the fishermen through his binoculars and knew they were legally licensed. After a half hour, we left without approaching them.
That won’t be the case here.
Talbot hands me the binoculars for a look and points out two people fishing on the opposite shore. I scan them with his high-powered binoculars, but their faces are hidden beneath caps and hoods pulled up against the cold. A dark pick-up truck is parked at the top of the bank, on the road.
He doesn’t recognize them. I wouldn’t recognize them under all those clothes if they were my next of kin.
We carefully backtrack, then make our way towards the head of the cove.
Last year, going after eels illegally held a civil penalty along the lines of a parking ticket.
With the prices of elvers soaring up to $3,000 a pound in 2012, it wasn’t much of a deterrent. Marine wardens would slap a violator with a fine one night and confiscate their gear, just to find them out fishing the next with a new dip net and bucket.
“I had one guy tell me last year that I could keep writing tickets until my pencil ran out of lead, he was going to keep fishing,” said Talbot. “It was just the cost of doing business.”
That changed this April when an emergency law went into effect, making it a criminal offense to illegally mess with elvers. A first offense now carries a $2,000 fine and a suspended fishing license for the rest of the season. The second offense is even harsher: a permanent loss of license to go after the little fish with the big payoff.
Elver licenses are hard to get. Under federal agreements made with the state because some data indicates eels are in short supply throughout much of its range, Maine can issue up to 744 licenses and 1,242 pieces of gear.
The limited licenses and the limited fishing gear are meant to protect the young eels from being overfished, but it is an open question whether it is an effective conservation measure.
For those lucky few who have a Maine elver fishing license, there is no quota. They can sleep days and work nights for the 10-week season and fish themselves silly, if they want to.
When we reach the road there is no need to dive into a ditch to avoid being caught in the headlights of an approaching car and giving away that a marine warden is nearby, as there was earlier in the evening. It’s late enough that traffic is unlikely.
Talbot whispers that the unknown fishermen are probably members of the Passamaquoddy tribe.
The tribe mostly fishes the St. Croix, the river that divides Maine from New Brunswick, but no elver fisherman is tied to a specific waterway or a certain stretch of bank. It’s catch as catch can.
The Passamaquoddy did not actively fish for elvers for much of the 2012 season. This year, Passamaquoddy elver fishermen were following the eels, like everyone else.
But not quite like everyone else.
The tribe is self-governed, at least to a point, and tribal leadership did not want to go with the state’s plan to limit licenses. Instead, they set a quota of 3,600 pounds for the whole tribe for the season and handed out 575 licenses, which was far more than the 150 licenses the state said they could have.
The tribe argues that their approach is more conservation-minded.
Chief Joseph Socobasin of Indian Township said the tribe had caught around 1,000 pounds with 400 active licenses as of May 10. It wasn’t looking like a big season.
Socobasin said the tribe wouldn’t come close to meeting their self-imposed quota.
Conservation-minded or not, the tribe had violated state fisheries law and had come up against the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) as a result. The DMR, in turn, was now in violation of the federal allowable catch limit set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).
Meanwhile, the ASMFC is about to change the rules. Or maybe not. Next week, they will decide whether to close the elver fishery for good.
Talk about a catch-22 — the tribe, the state, the feds, the individual fisherman with a bucket and net, the eels themselves — too many numbers and nobody able to say, definitively, why their plan or their data is more accurate or a better way to manage the fishery.
“Will you issue them violations if they have licenses numbered above 150?” I ask Talbot as we double-step up the road to check the two fishermen.
Talbot nods. His job is to enforce the laws, not make them. If the fishermen weren’t legal, he would cite them.
As we approach the dark pick-up from the rear, it is clear someone is inside, engine off, listening to a country-western station turned down low.
Talbot ignores the truck and heads off the road and over the edge of the banking, about 40 feet up-slope from the two dip-netters.
“Wait here,” he whispers, and walks noiselessly forward to the smaller of the two, a woman who is just turning in Talbot’s direction to empty her dip net into a bucket.
Under the glare of her high-powered spotlight, she bends her head over the bucket to empty the net. Talbot stops three feet away. She doesn’t know he’s there. Neither does her companion, a stocky man facing the water with his back to the bank. After a few seconds, Talbot backs away a couple of steps and speaks quietly.
The woman jumps.
“Oh, my god, you scared me!” she says, putting a hand to her chest. The man turns around, lifts his net out of the water and slowly walks over without speaking.
Talbot says something I can’t quite hear, so I creep closer.
He asks for their licenses, which, it turns out, are in the truck with the guy and the music.
I slide down the banking, not nearly as quietly as the marine warden.
The fishing is slow, it turns out, and the conversation cordial. With permission, I peer in their buckets. There are a few ounces, at most. There is no clot of baby eels as big as a Chevy bunched up at the base of dams like there was last year. It’s too cold.
“I had to back up a couple of steps,” Talbot says as we climb the slope towards the truck. “I was afraid she would jump in the water, once she knew I was there.”
The man in the truck rolls down his window, hands over the Passamaquoddy tribal licenses and gets out to lean over the hood and chat. Talbot checks that the licenses are legal and hands them back, talking about who is fishing where.
“People are around, but no banditos tonight,” says Talbot, back on the road.
“So much for the chase scene,” I say. “You’re wrecking my story.”
“They are out there, somewhere,” he says. “There will be nobody on the weirdest little stream one week and the next week, there they’ll be.”
By the time we reach the Camden Public Landing, the tide is about to turn. Two elver dealers with an unloaded handgun on the console between them are sitting in a beat- up old van, smoking cigarettes and watching “Scarface” on a portable DVD player mounted on the dash above the glove box, which is held together with duct tape.
“They’re carrying $14,000 to pay the fishermen,” Talbot says. That’s not much. The night before the dealers had $28,000 and they ran out of money.
By the end of April that changed, after a new law took effect requiring all elver sales to be done by traceable paper checks that carry the name of the dealer and the name and license number of the elver fisherman.
“These guys are not really elver dealers,” says Talbot. “They’re moonlighting marine worm dealers.”
Before daybreak, the dealers will pass their catch on to an exporter. Before the day is old, the elvers will be prepped for live shipping.
Delaware Valley Fish Company shipped up to 75 percent of the Maine elver catch last year, primarily to Asia, according to Mitchell Feigenbaum, one of the owners of the company.
Feigenbaum, whose company buys direct in Waldoboro and buys from other dealers along the coast, said as soon as the eels are paid for, they head to the company’s processing facility in Portland, where they are packaged in breathable plastic bags that contain brackish water. Each bag, holding a pound or two of eels, is air-freighted out of Boston or New York with a Lloyds of London-style insurance policy riding on the bags.
“The price tonight paid to fishermen is $1,800 a pound,” said Feigenbaum on Friday, May 10.
About four days after leaving a bucket on a riverbank, the Delaware Valley Fish Company eels land at an airport in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, Vietnam or South Korea, where they are picked up by the overseas client who, this year, is paying between $1,600 and $2,950 a pound.
About a day later, most of the baby eels end up in aquaculture farms. They land on a dinner table somewhere in the world about a year after that.
Feigenbaum is not only an eel dealer. He is a Pennsylvania rep on the eel advisory committee of ASMFC, which will vote on May 21 whether to close the glass eel fishery in Maine, reduce it by either 25 or 50 percent, or keep it the same.
There is no need to change the quota, says Feigenbaum because the catch data shows elver numbers are consistently up, year after year.
A licensed dip-netter at the ASMFC meeting, which was held in Augusta on April 30 to get public comments on the proposed changes to the fishery, drew loud applause from other elver fishermen when she spoke at the microphone.
“I’d like you to come on down to where I live and dig clams, pick periwinkles and live on food stamps and try to catch eels for $50 a pound and be so poor it’s embarrassing to go to the store and try to buy some food,” she said.
And suddenly, she said, due to global events, the elver price has gone through the roof, allowing her to finally be solvent, buy a truck and a tractor for her land.
She challenged anyone — scientists, fisheries administrators, environmentalists, Massachusetts busy-bodies — to come out with her and watch the elvers and collect data in her part of the coast where, she said, baby eels are so abundant that last year they clogged outlet pipes at a Machias fish hatchery.
The glass eel and the elver, however, are just two stages in the long, complicated life of an eel. These aren’t simple fish. An abundance now may not mean the population is up for the species as a whole. Over-fishing or changes in water temperature, which is another concern, could take decades to show up in the population.
After the ASMFC rules next week, the drama will be far from over.
The potential of listing the American eel as a threatened species is back in the news. After being sued by CESAR (a conservative booster of agribusiness posing as an environmental group that is using the eel as a pawn to weaken the Endangered Species Act), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached a settlement this spring. They will go forward with the review to list the eel, with a deadline of September 30, 2015.
On the way back to the truck, Talbot and I stop to check a gunkhole in an improbable spot. There is no one there to see the glass eels, transparent and determined, swimming up into a culvert that seems to go nowhere.
“A dollar here, a dollar there,” I say.
We watch silently for a minute.
“I’m going to go get a bucket and a net,” I tell Talbot.
“It’s tempting, isn’t it?” he says. “Of course, I’ll know where to find you.”