SOMESVILLE, May 3, 2020 – Two years ago today one of the biggest sting operations in U.S. marine enforcement history reached its denouement when the Ellsworth “elvers kingpin” was sentenced.
But more on that in later. First, I want to talk about eels.
I am not a big sushi fan so whenever I’m at a Japanese restaurant I default to grilled unagi (above photo), or eel. I love this dish even though it’s on the pricey side. I also love the way the Chinese braise eel and smother it with garlic and hot oil.
Like many folks from away I never knew about the strong Down East connection with eels until last year, that Maine is one of the world’s leading sources for elvers – baby eels – which are sold to aqua farms in Asia to raise adult eels for markets in Japan and China. Elvers are worth more than gold on the black market, fetching $3,000 a pound or more.
That got me thinking about what a temptation it must be with so many folks out of work during this pandemic to set up a poaching operation to earn some quick cash. A large bucket of elvers can sell for $50,000.
All you need is a fyke net, lanterns and a tidal stream. Best thing is you do this at night when elvers swim upstream to avoid natural predators during the day. Seems to me these are perfect ingredients made for poaching.
The marine enforcement authorities must be worried about this as well. Beginning in 2011 they began to keep a close eye as prices skyrocketed. Two things converged to spike the demand. The Europeans overfished eels to the point of wiping out 90 percent of the population, forcing them to halt all fishing. Japan, meanwhile, got hit with an earthquake and tsunami which shattered its aqua farm infrastructure. The price per pound for elvers went from $185 in 2010 to $1,900 a pound two years later.
In the years since, eel has become the second only to lobster in generating revenues for Maine, approaching $40 million a year. Each year the state holds a lottery to add a handful of newcomers to its 1,000 licensed fishermen. Mount Desert has more than 20 licensees, the newest being SW Harbor committeeman Corey Pettegrow who won one in February.
Maine also imposes a limit of just under 10,000 pounds. So far, the catch has reached slightly above 7,500 pounds this season with another month to go.
Back to the anniversary …
On May 3, 2018, Bill Sheldon was sentenced to serve six months in prison for trafficking more than $500,000 in elvers in the Ellsworth area. In all 21 persons were arrested by the Feds, including 12 Maine residents. William Sheldon was actually a Maine Department of Marine Resources employee with a degree in wildlife management in the 70s when he developed techniques for elvers fishing and for shipment. He taught numerous locals how best to fish these transparent worm-like morsels. Many of his students went on to earn a decent living as elvers prices rivaled that of the bluefin tuna – another high demand fish for the Japanese markets.
When he was busted in his shop in Ellsworth he was brokering one third of all elvers inventory shipped to Asia from Maine. Sheldon claims that he bought a small batch of 267 pounds of elvers from poachers from South Carolina whom he thought had fished the baby eels in Maine waters. He served six months in prison in New Hampshire.
Was it an appropriately light sentence given that he helped create the second largest seafood market in the state – one the state is still promulgating despite environmental concerns?
There is the persistent pressure by the likes of organizations like Seafood Watch and Greenpeace to end all elvers fishing in Maine, which is one of only two East Coast states – South Carolina the other – to allow it. Could it be that even the annual limit isn’t enough to prevent the elvers population from going to zero, as was what essentially happened in Europe? That will be an article for another day.
Meanwhile, I’ll never eat another plate of unagi with the same innocence.
For more on this topic, watch this short documentary … https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/604204/elvers/
A friend pointed out these lichen atop a pole at Beech Hill Farm called “British Soldiers” as they resemble red coats … now that the farm has plowed and seeded it’s not that far from fresh organic fruit and vegetables … Beech Hill will also deliver during the lockdown.