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Slippery, Slimy and Succulent – American Eel Are a Delicacy for Many, But Their Future is Uncertain

In the seafood business, there are sometimes bewildering price fluctuations: a good that was once abundant is suddenly cut off, or its price is quickly elevated, usually right when your end-users are demanding it the most.  This is especially true for exotic foods, which tend to come in and out of fashion.  One food in which you have probably seen an increase in price is eel, used to make the popular and delicious unagi. With a lack of supply, and with demand higher than ever, market prices are soaring and the American eel fishery has created an economic boom for some East Coast fishermen.  Although this situation may be beneficial for fishermen, it can be detrimental for other industries.

It is essential for businesses to provide their clients with a cost-effective and healthy food source, and the best way to maintain these is to keep that source sustainable.  With everyone vying for a piece of the wealth – legally or illegally – serious concerns are growing over the status of eel populations and the continuation of the fishery.  Here’s what you need to know about this popular food, and how working with ecologically-friendly distributors can help keep the population up and your customers happy.

Economic value
The price of the glass eel, a 3-inch baby American eel, has fluctuated immensely in the past and has even dropped down to as low as $25/pound.  But after the 2010 European moratorium on exporting eels and the depletion of the Japanese stock after the 2011 tsunami, prices for the American eel shot sky high to meet the appetite for eels in Asian markets.  The high demand and short supply rocketed the value of the glass eel to $2,600 per pound in 2012, creating a modern gold rush along Maine’s rivers and streams.  This has made the American eel Maine’s second most valuable catch, after lobster, generating $39 million in business last year.

Thousands of pounds of the little eels are flown live to several countries throughout Asia where they grow and mature in massive eel farms.  Once the eels reach adulthood – at an astonishing length of at least 3 feet – they are sold mostly in Europe and Asia where they are roasted, stewed, fried, grilled, smoked, or jellied.  90% of all eel sold in the U.S. are farm-raised, with the majority destined to become unagi.

The influx of pure profit for these eels has been a stroke of luck for once-struggling fishermen.  In an interview with the Boston Globe, 47-year-old angler Darrel Young said he earned $150,000 this spring by selling eels caught in the Penobscot River.  “It’s very poor up here and this money has done wonders for people, bailing them out and getting their lives straightened out,” he said.  Before last year, the majority of Maine eel fishermen barely earned a living from fishing, clamming, and construction.  Income earned from eel landings has allowed them to pay off mortgages, invest in businesses and buy long-needed equipment.  Not to mention that a fair amount of celebration may have taken place.

It is not all good news
In 2012 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission conducted a study that concluded the American eel stock is at “historically low levels” and considered it to be “depleted due to overfishing, disease, and predators”.  The lure of easy profits has brought in poachers from Massachusetts and New England who catch eels out of state and bring them to Maine to sell.  The actual weight of eel exports from Canada and Main alone has been 2-3 times the officially reported catch, indicating there is an enormous influx of illegal catch.  The method of farming the eels is an area of concern as well.  Open-net pens allow waste products, disease and parasites from the farm to flow directly into the surrounding environment.  The eels also need to be fed other fish, eating up to twice their weight in wild-caught fish.  The practice of catching the juveniles from the wild for farms puts more pressure on the wild populations, as these eels are not able to sexually mature and reproduce.  A conservation group has petitioned to declare the American Eel an endangered species, a proposal that is currently being weighed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The exception to the low numbers of eels on the east coast is Maryland; local waters there seem to be teeming with the slippery fish and they have the highest landings by weight of any state on the coast.  Biologists even say that fishing pressure in state waters don’t seem to be excessive.  Surveys in Maryland indicated that the population has increased since the 1990s – though they were not as carefully tracked in prior decades.

A unique life cycle
American eel (Anguilla rostrata) can live up to 25 years and have a truly amazing life cycle, with stages taking place in both saltwater and freshwater.  As opposed to the anadromous salmon, which spawn in fresh water and travel to the ocean to mature, eels are catadromous – meaning they hatch from eggs in the ocean, migrate to freshwater to mature, then return to the ocean to spawn.  Spawning grounds are in the Sargasso Sea, east of the Bahamas.  As larvae, they hitch a ride on the Gulf Stream and other currents, undertaking a year-long journey hundreds of miles to the Atlantic coast.  Along the way they develop and grow into a translucent life stage known as the “glass eel” by the time they enter freshwater.  As they mature, they enter different life stages known as elvers, then yellow eels, then finally silver eels once they are sexually mature.  Adults males will reach 3 feet long, while the females may grow up to 5 feet in length.  Eventually, they return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

Conservation efforts
The Centre for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability is at the forefront of American eel conservation.  They are working to restock the eel population in the Susquehanna River.  Federal biologists collect young elvers below the Conowingo Dam in the spring and summer and release them upriver.  This year they collected and released more than 270,000 young eels.

This effort is about more than restoring eel populations.  The eels serve as hosts for a rare freshwater mussel, the eastern elliptio.  Scientists hope that restocking eels may revive the mussels and help the river’s water quality, as the mussels are active filter feeders.

In 2004 the Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock River in Virginia was removed.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up the 22-foot-tall, 770-foot-long 1910 hydroelectric dam with 600 tons of explosives.  The removal reopened miles of spawning grounds for American Shad and herring as well as the American eel.  A survey headed by the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service state that there were considerable increases in eel numbers nearly 100 miles away only 2 years after the dam removal.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering new regulations for the American eel fishery.  A decision has been put off until May while Maine works to slash its commercial harvest of young glass eels by 25-40%.

It is vastly important to understand the pressures that face modern fisheries and to recognize the need to conserve important seafood resources from our oceans.  With proper management, the American eel can rebound to a healthy population and a sustainable fishery – but only if we make smart choices about our seafood.  When choosing your seafood, you can trust that Pucci Foods is committed to working with partners who practice sustainable seafood farming and fishing.

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