Saturday, March 8, 2014
BY CLARKE CANFIELD, Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
Bruce Steeves uses a lantern while dip netting for elvers on a river in southern Maine. Elvers are young, translucent eels that are born in the Sargasso Sea and swim to freshwater lakes and ponds where they grow to adults before returning to the sea. This year, they are going for about $2,000 a pound.
Bruce Steeves uses a lantern while dip netting for elvers on a river in southern Maine. Elvers are young, translucent eels that are born in the Sargasso Sea and swim to freshwater lakes and ponds where they grow to adults before returning to the sea.
Prices yo-yoed in recent years before soaring to last year's eye-popping levels because of an elver shortage in Europe and Japan, said Mitchell Feigenbaum, owner of South Shore Trading Co., which has an elver buying station in Portland. Fishermen last year harvested about 8,500 pounds at an average of $891 a pound -- for a total value of $7.6 million.
With this year's catch bringing even higher prices, some fishermen staked out key fishing spots weeks ahead of time. Asian buyers have been showing up at some rivers in the dead of night, paying cash for elvers on the spot.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement officers have seen a dramatic increase in illegal activity and have issued summonses coast-wide for illegal fishing, even before the season started. Just last week, Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed emergency legislation that levies $2,000 fines and license suspensions for illegal elver fishing or tampering with other people's gear.
Maine Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot isn't surprised people are taking risks for a shot at the lucrative eels.
"At that price, people are going to take the chance to do it illegally and sell them because it's big money," Talbot said.
After Steeves harvests the creatures, he puts them in a bucket and takes them to a buyer on the Portland waterfront who strains the writhing catch to remove debris and dead eels, squeezes out the water and weighs the catch. The eels are then dumped into a holding tank of water before they're packed into Styrofoam boxes and put on planes destined for buyers in China and elsewhere in Asia, where they will be grown to market size in farm ponds.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is now reviewing whether to list the eels as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A 2007 review found that federal protection wasn't warranted.
Steeves has never eaten eel, but he's been told they're delicious. Once grown, the eels are sold for unagi kabayaki, a grilled eel dish.
"They must really love them over there to pay what they pay for them," he said. "It's funny how they'll pay for things expensive over there and over here we laugh at this stuff."
Paul Firminger, manager for South Shore Trading's Portland operation, said the eels have mild and tender white meat, no bones to speak of and skin that peels off easily.
"It's like a cross between chicken and mackerel," he said.
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A handful of elvers are displayed by a buyer in Portland. The baby eels are shipped to Asia where they will grow to adults and be sold as food.