Eel Farms and the Shady Baby Eel Trade

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20120521-eel NormalSizedAndShapeEel.JPG Young eels are caught in the sea and raised on fish farms in ponds or lakes often some distance from the sea. The farms are monitored around the clock by eel farmers. It’s a very risky enterprise. If disease spreads or accidents happen, the entire stock of eels can be lost. Feeding the eels two to three times a day and purchasing the young eels is expensive. Their diets consist of a mixture of fish meal, wheat, soybean meal, and fish oil — which is not so different that what is fed farmed salmon. Eel farmers begin with, say, 150,000 baby eels. They feed them. After six to 12 months, the eels are big enough to be sold. After the eels are sold. workers unload them and sort them by size to determine where they'll be sold. Experienced workers can quickly tell the difference just by feel. Some of these eels will end up at first class restaurants like Surugaya, [Source: Alexandra Appolonia, Business Insider, November 3, 2022]

Michio Tanaka has worked as an eel farmer for almost 40 years. He told Business Insider: The amount I raise here varies each year, but roughly speaking it's about 30 tons. About 150,000 or 160,000 eels...As for farming eels, I don't think eels are easy fish to grow. If one disease spreads or one accident happens in the pond, you can never make a profit. This can be done only through daily care. I am trying to feed them in a way that food gets around to all 150,000 baby eels. That is a difficult task. I pay a lot of attention to those baby eels. If something happens to that one pond, everything is gone. [Source: Clancy Morgan, Business Insider, May 22, 2021]

Young eels, called glass eels, have to be caught in the wild, usually in rivers. No farms have been able to efficiently breed the eels in captivity. So farmers depend on the catch of young eels to make a profit. In April 2010 scientists at Mie University announced that they had successfully raised the world's first fully cultivated eels produced from sperm and eggs collected from artificially raised eels. Still, growing eels from eggs could and selling them commercially for a profit is far away. Artificial feed and other expenses would make each eel cost hundreds of dollars, experts said.

Aquaculture farms are expensive, and some farming methods common in Asia are frowned upon in the U.S. According to National Geographic: For example, the use of hormones. Eels are intersexual, meaning they can become either male or female. The overcrowded conditions on the farms encourage a higher proportion of males, which weigh less and have no market value, so hormones are given to increase the number of females. [Source: Rene Ebersole, National Geographic, July 7, 2017]

The eel industry in Japan has been hurt by competition from abroad, specifically China. The smuggling of baby eels out of Japan is regarded as a serious problem, Sometimes the eels are packed into bags and smuggled in suitcases out on commercial aircraft.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal

Eels from China

Eel farm in the Philippines

About 80 percent of the eels consumed in Japan in the mid 2000s came from China or Taiwan. Improvements in processing and cultivation made it to distinguish them from Japanese-produced eels. China exported 46,646 tons of grilled eel, mostly to Japan, in 2006. Most Chinese eels are produced Guangdong Province.

Shipments of eels from China were halted for four months in 2007 because of safety concerns after a banned substance was found in a shipment of eels. See Fish Farms

There have been several cases of Chinese-produced eels being labeled as Japanese-produced ones. In August 2010, six people, including employees at a supermarket chain, were arrested for mislabeling Chinese-produced eels. In 2008, the trading firm Unhide and the seafood wholesaler Shinto Gyorui were investigated for labeling tons of Chinese eels as being produced in Japan. The companies made large profits (Eels from Japan sell for between ¥4,000 and ¥5,000 per kilogram while those from China sell for between ¥1,800 and ¥1,900 per kilogram) and regarded mislabeling as “worth the risk” since it is “difficult to distinguish between domestic eels and imported, especially with processed products.”

Rise of American Eels

Rene Ebersole wrote for National Geographic: In the past, American eels — less desirable to Asian tastes than the Japanese and European species — represented a small fraction of total international sales. But in 2010 the European Union banned exports of European eels, which had been declared critically endangered, causing a sudden shortage. It was particularly acute in Japan.

With the Japanese species also in steep decline, Asia turned to the U.S. for baby eels to seed aquaculture farms. By 2012 the price for the American species had skyrocketed to more than $2,000 a pound, creating an eel rush for fishermen in Maine. Guys who’d scraped by in the off-season doing construction jobs, painting houses, and collecting seaweed now raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in the eel fishing season, Today wild-born American eels raised in China appear on menus pretty much everywhere.

In the 1980s you could catch eels legally anywhere along the East Coast, and eel fishermen chased the runs from Florida in January all the way to Maine in March. “We would meet in New York with tank trucks full of eels, pack them in a warehouse, and ship them to Japan — everything went to Japan then,” Sheldon says. [Source: Rene Ebersole, National Geographic, July 7, 2017]

By the late 1990s eels were becoming less plentiful. Most states along the eastern seaboard had responded to concerns about overexploitation by shutting down their glass eel fisheries. Today glass eels can be taken only in South Carolina, which maintains a small fishery, Maine, where the annual quota is just under 10,000 pounds, and Florida, where eels are too scarce to support a fishery.

Maine Baby Eel Industry

young eels

The U.S. state of Maine is a major source of baby eels. It is the only U.S. state with a significant fishery for the eels. The eels are sold to Asian aquaculture and eel farm companies. On a per-pound basis, baby eels are by far the most valuable seafood species in Maine. Even when price are down they're worth more than 100 times the price of lobster. [Source: Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, May 8, 2022]

The baby eel industry there was ravaged by volatile price swings in 2020 and 2021. Associated Press reported: Prices have fluctuated wildly since the start of COVID-19 pandemic. They sank to $525 per pound in 2020 and rose to about $1,850 in 2021 The 2022 season began on March 22 amid another cloud of uncertainty. The season is always dependent on weather conditions and the timing of rivers thawing, because that allows the eels to run and be fished with nets. Unrest in Europe also has the ability to disrupt the international supply chain for seafood, said Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.

The price of the elvers rebounded in 2021 year in part because of greater ease in international trading at large during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The eels themselves also cooperated. Maine's fishermen are limited to a little less than 10,000 pounds (4,535 kilos) of baby eels per year, and they have reached or approached that number for several years in a row. The fishing industry ends for the season in early June or when the quota is tapped out.

Catching Baby Eels in Maine

Catching baby eels is grueling work typically it is done at night or in the pre-dawn hours before high tide, when elvers are washed up the river mouth. Fishermen don rubber boots, rain suits and headlamps, and use either a tubular net left in the water or what looks like an oversize butterfly net, which requires hours of scooping to pull elvers from the water. Alvah Wendell, rhythmically swishes his dip net to catch young eels as they swim up the Bagaduce River in Maine. He uses a green headlamp because white light spooks the fish. “You don’t need to see them to catch them,” he told National Geographic. “But I like to watch.” [Source: Reuters, 2012; National Geographic]

Fish Fish eel farm in Lithuania,

Dip netters work on rocky shorelines all night, every night until they reach their individual annual quotas, Some use specially-designed $1,000 fyke nets that are set up at night at low tide and guide eels swimming upstream into a cone-shaped trap. There are roughly 2,000 glass eels to the pound. Boxes with up to a hundred pounds of them are shipped to Asia to be sold to aquaculture farms.[Source: Rene Ebersole, National Geographic, July 7, 2017]

Describing an elver netter at work, Rene Ebersole wrote for National Geographic: At low tide, around 8:30 in the morning, under gray skies and a cold, misty rain, Adam unties the tail end of his fyke net and peers inside to see how many eels he caught during the night on the bank of the Union River, which runs through Ellsworth. Dragon, 44, shakes the squirming eels into a white bucket. “That’s much less than I caught the night before — maybe my second worst night,” he says. Still, there have been plenty of good nights to balance the bad. “When I caught three pounds last week, I was like, this is why I do this.” By his estimation three pounds represents perhaps 7,500 glass eels.

With his catch Adam drives over to Bill Sheldon’s Quonset hut. Sheldon twists the water out of the sack of slimy eels as if squeezing a pastry bag. He empties them into the metal bowl. They weigh 1.15 pounds. “These will be in China in five days,” he says. He enters the data on his computer.“Buyer: Bill Sheldon. Port: Ellsworth. Quantity: 1.150 pounds; PP: $1300/lb; Total $1,495.” He hands Adam a check.

Baby Eel “Gold Rush” in Maine

Some people in Maine have profited quite handsomely from selling baby eels. Jason McLure of Reuters wrote: “George Forni will spend most of next week holed up in his home in Sullivan, Maine, guarded by a new surveillance system and armed with a stun gun and pepper spray as he buys live baby eels from neighbors for thousands of dollars. May 31 marks the end of what has become a gold rush for a small group of Maine fisherman — the 10-week season for catching juvenile eels, known as elvers, whose price has increased nearly a hundredfold over the past decade.[Source: Jason McLure, Reuters, May 16, 2012]

Dealers in Maine are paying $2,300 a pound for the thread-like creatures — more than double last year’s price — and Forni is so awash in cash from catching elvers and buying them from other fisherman on behalf of a dealer that he has ramped up his home security.“This year for two and a half months is better than any three years I’ve ever worked in my life,” said Forni, 53. He said he paid off all his debts and bought a new $51,000 pickup truck with a portion of this season’s windfall. “All of a sudden it’s a gold mine. China wants them that bad, and we’re the only place that can get them,” said Forni, who spends the rest of the year cutting sod and plowing snow.

Fish Fish eel farm in Lithuania

It can be the proverbial license to print money. From a single net placed at a river mouth, Forni has earned as much as $12,500 in a single night. The eels he catches are flown to China or South Korea, where they will be raised for several years in fish farms, which need a constant supply of juveniles from the wild because eels do not reproduce in captivity. Once mature, many will be sent to processing factories where most will be roasted and sold in Japan at sushi bars.

The price spike may push elvers past softshell clams and Atlantic herring to become Maine’s second most valuable fishery after lobsters in 2012, according to state data. In 2011, elvers accounted for $7.6 million in revenue, or an average of $18,673 per licensed fisherman. The numbers were far higher in 2012. “We’ve had reports of people making over $100,000 over two or three days when they’re getting them right,” said Sergeant Rob Beal of the Maine Marine Patrol.

Elation and Fear During the Maine Eel Boom of 2012

Everyone in Ellsworth, Maine has a story about the eel rush days of 2012. Rene Ebersole wrote for National Geographic: Paul Dragon, a 67-year-old fisherman told National Geographic: “One night I picked up $6,700 worth of eels, just this tired old guy with his dip net...You do get this gold fever,” he says. Being a fisherman is brutal labor, Dragon says. “Most of the people who started glass eel fishing were worm diggers, clam diggers, and lobster fishermen. Then along came glass eel fishing. It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds after this long rainy spell. It was so exciting.” There were no catch limits, and it was legal for dealers to pay cash on the spot. [Source: Rene Ebersole, National Geographic, July 7, 2017]

Darrell Young, a stocky guy in a baseball hat in a white Dodge Power Wagon said: “When I started fishing 25 years ago, the price of eel was $30 to $40 per pound,” he says. “We couldn’t even afford fyke nets, we were so poor. Guys would say, ‘I made enough to fill my refrigerator with food.’ Then in 2012,” Young continues, “I made $150,000. I paid everything off — my taxes, a $30,000 loan on my house, everything. In 2013 I made $200,000 — that was another amazing year. I bought my boy a house.”

“Bill Sheldon would park down on Water Street in Ellsworth with a half a million dollars,” Dragon recounts. “Whenever they got low on money, they’d make a call, and someone would bring over another big bag of money. It was unbelievable what was going on — inconceivable.” Sheldon hired a bodyguard named Larry Taylor, who keeps a Glock visible in his holster at all times to protect against thieves. Most other dealers armed up too.

Randy Bushey, a buyer in Steuben, about 45 minutes east of Ellsworth, remembers coming back from Bangor one morning around 2:30 going 65 miles an hour in a 45 zone. When he got pulled over, he told the cop he had weapons and a carrier’s permit. “I had a .45-caliber handgun under my left arm, a .45 in the glove compartment, a 12-gauge shotgun between the seats, and by the way, a .22-caliber pistol on my belt buckle. The cop said, ‘Why do you have so many guns?’ I told him I had a hundred pounds of eels and more than a quarter million dollars in cash.”

Everyone was on edge, Bushey says. “There were rumors that gangs from New Jersey were coming to rob the Maine buyers. We were told, ‘If you see a bunch of guys with tattoos, shoot first and ask questions later.’ I think the fishermen were scared too. If I handed you $80,000 at midnight on a riverbank, what are you going to do? Run.”

Turf wars erupted between fishermen that ended in fistfights. Poachers donned scuba masks to reach restricted areas. And there were robberies. In 2013 an eel poacher named Alan Perkins broke into a local seafood business and tried to make off with a five-gallon bucket of glass eels worth $10,000. The business owners fought to capture him, but he got away. After a month-long manhunt, police finally hauled him into the Hancock County Jail. He was indicted on charges of burglary, theft, and violating release and was sentenced to seven years in jail.

Quotas and Competition in the Maine Eel Trade

Maine’s 10-week-long eel fishing season runs from March to the first week in June. Elvers are restricted by quotas which can range from 4 pounds to 150 pounds. Even those with licenses are limited to two tubular nets and one butterfly-style net and are banned from fishing two days a week. Reuters reported: Most of Maine’s elver licenses are held by those who have fished for the eels for years. In addition competition among elver fishermen is fierce in prime locations. Michael Murphy, 63, of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, has been catching elvers for 25 years along a river in southern Maine. Murphy, who collects scrap metal the rest of the year, sat out last season after having surgery for cancer and lost his prime location near a highway underpass. “I snoozed, I losed,” Murphy said, after asking that the location not be disclosed.

His spot was taken by Lester Toothaker, 50, a clamdigger from Hebron, Maine. On a recent day, Toothaker arrived at the river 10 hours before beginning fishing to claim his position. This year the interest in elvers has grown exponentially, he said, with dealers even showing up in the middle of the night to call out prices as he fishes. “When it was $25 a pound, no one was around,” he said.

There was a quota of 11,749 pounds in 2014 and that was cut to 9,688 pounds in 2015. A portion of that quota, about 21 percent in 2016, is shared with four local Native American tribes in recognition of their indigenous rights. Each fisherman has an annual allowable take based on the average of his or her past eel landings. Each time a fisherman sells eels, the tally is tracked with a swipe card that logs the information into a government database. Dealers can no longer pay cash — only checks. [Source: Rene Ebersole, National Geographic, July 7, 2017]

Maine fishermen were glad to get rid of the told National Geographic “It was dangerous before. Thank God nothing ever happened.” But they say that quota is too strict, arguing that glass eels have a huge range along the entire East Coast and far beyond and that they’re harvesting only a sliver of that habitat. “Maine errs on the side of conservation,” Sheldon says, “but they’ve gone too far.”

Eel Poaching and Smuggling

According to to Reuters: Quotas and restrictions have “led to a big uptick in poaching. Officers with the Maine Marine Patrol say they issued more than 200 citations in the first 52 days of the 2012 season. With fines for many violations ranging from $100 to $500, however, that may not be enough to discourage illegal elver fishing. [Source: Jason McLure, Reuters, May 16, 2012]

On a bigger time operation , Rene Ebersole wrote for National Geographic: Agents with the U.S. government’s ‘Operation Broken Glass’ have nabbed more than a dozen men for smuggling valuable baby eels to Asia. On March 17, 2014, in Ruffin, South Carolina, Yarann Im, 35, purchased a package containing nearly eight pounds of eels from an undercover agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Im handed the agent a check for $3,450. Three days later he exported that haul in a shipment of 38 pounds of eels — valued at $25,000 — via Boston, Massachusetts, to an importer in Hong Kong.

In the weeks that followed, Im made a series of subsequent purchases and shipments to China and elsewhere, reaping more than $500,000 in payments. Im was among seven men who in October 2016 pleaded guilty in the federal district court in Portland, Maine, to trafficking a total of more than $1.9 million worth of glass eels in violation of the Lacey Act, a law passed in 1900 to protect wildlife by enforcing civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants.

In November 2016 three more men pleaded guilty in South Carolina to selling and transporting more than $740,000 worth of glass eels obtained illegally in the state. In early April, 2017 Brooklyn seafood dealer Tommy Zhou became the 11th person to plead guilty to eel trafficking. Using his Maine dealer license as cover for his illegal activity, Zhou had bought and exported more than $150,000 of glass eels harvested in Virginia.

Endangered U.S. Eels?

According to Reuters: High prices are fueling a boom in poaching and raising concerns that the American eel population, already at its lowest level since the 1950s, will dwindle further. Driving prices has been an eel harvesting ban in Europe amid concerns about overfishing, disruption to supplies caused by last year’s tsunami in the Pacific and strict catch limits on elvers in the U.S. [Source: Jason McLure, Reuters, May 16, 2012]

Maine, which this year issued 407 licenses — down from 2,207 in 1996 — and South Carolina, which issued 10, are the only two states that allow baby eels to be harvested. Maine’s Passamaquoddy Indian tribe, which has the authority to issue fishing licenses to tribal members, announced that it would begin granting licenses for elver fishing, with 236 to be available. “They can survive through a lot, that’s why seeing declining populations is of particular concern because they can be a bellwether for environmental systems,” said Kate Taylor of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Unfortunately, she said, environmental groups tend to rally around species that are considered cuter than the snakelike eel.

Dams, fishing and pollution have all contributed to a decline in the estimated Atlantic eel population in recent years, raising concerns about a fish with a reputation for resilience. Offshore catches of adult eels have declined from more than 3.5 million pounds in the 1970s to less than 1 million pounds today, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether to place eels on its endangered species list.

South Shore Trading company manager Mitchell Feigenbaum said government research on declining eels stocks overstates the problem because it is based on catch data of adult eels offshore. “There are massive amounts of eels in other areas where there is no fishing taking place,” he said. “You can’t take hundreds of people out of work just because you want to restore the population back to where it was at some distant time. The eel fishery sustains itself.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); JNTO, Japan Zone Andrew Gray Photosensibility, Hector Garcia,

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2023

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