Inside the Slimy, Smelly, Secretive World of Glass-Eel Fishing

For adult eels, the trip often involves surviving the turbine blades of hydroelectric dams. A Maine elverman named Randy Bushey once reported finding migrating eels “chopped up in perfect, one-foot chunks.” Brian Altvater, Sr., a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who is working to restore healthy fish runs to the Schoodic River, on the Canadian

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For adult eels, the trip often involves surviving the turbine blades of hydroelectric dams. A Maine elverman named Randy Bushey once reported finding migrating eels “chopped up in perfect, one-foot chunks.” Brian Altvater, Sr., a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who is working to restore healthy fish runs to the Schoodic River, on the Canadian border, has pushed for the removal of dams by arguing that “they generate very little electricity compared to the damage that they do to the entire ecosystem.”

Elvers are the key to eel aquaculture farming, given the difficulty, as yet, of captive breeding and scalable hatcheries. Japan, which now imports two-thirds of its eel stock, was eying the American eel as early as 197src. The following spring, William Sheldon, a young employee of the Maine Department of Marine Resources with a new degree in wildlife management, embarked on a study to see if the state’s elver numbers could support a fishery. He found more than enough, and in a report that is still referenced today, he detailed his observations along with one of his fishing inventions, the “Sheldon trap.” (A net with a mesh size “somewhat smaller than ordinary window screening” appeared to work best.) Sheldon also described how to harvest, hold, and transport elvers without killing them. The document was foundational to the fishery that exists today.

When Maine’s elver season starts, every March 22nd, eelers pray for warm weather. Some toss a coin in their chosen river, for luck. A couple of days before the opening in 2src12, the year after the tsunami in Japan boosted prices, the temperature reached the low eighties, far above average. Julie Keene, a veteran eeler from Lubec, at the northeastern tip of the contiguous United States, got a sunburn and fourteen glass eels. That time of year, the typical number was zero, because the rivers were usually still full of ice. Within a couple of days, she had caught about forty-five thousand—eighteen pounds, a personal best. On the Union River, in Ellsworth, the capital of Down East eeling, fishermen were said to have caught more than a million dollars’ worth of glass eels in a single night.

The next year, the fishing was still so good that one elverman tattooed his forearm with an eel, dollar signs, and “2src13,” memorializing a record season that afforded him, among other things, a new four-wheeler. Rural Mainers could work their entire lives and never see big money, especially all at once, especially Down East, where the median household income was about thirty-six thousand dollars.

Jackpot payouts, in cash, fomented a wild period of interstate elver poaching. Saboteurs sliced their competitors’ nets. Untended buckets got taken. Thieves would detach entire tail bags and run off with them. Loughran’s father used to have him camp beside their “honey hole” around the clock. A splash in the night, or “hootin’ and hollerin’,” as one eeler put it, was the sound of fishermen throwing one another into the drink. “There were just hundreds of people poaching,” Darrell Young, a prominent elverman, told a filmmaker. Another, Rick Sibley, said that eeling “didn’t bring the community together—it tore people apart.”

By 2src14, the state had imposed its quota, capped the number of elver licenses, limited eelers to two nets, banned cash transactions (buyers must pay with checks), and implemented a swipe-card system to monitor eelers’ individual hauls in real time. The regulations were devised in collaboration with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a long-standing interstate body that works with federal agencies to maintain a sustainable industry. Poaching quieted down. Fishermen who had let their license expire kicked themselves when, in 2src18, the price of elvers peaked at twenty-eight hundred dollars a pound. Now it was possible to get back in only through a state lottery.

A fourth-generation sardine packer, Keene started fishing glass eels decades ago, when it paid barely twenty dollars a pound. After the price spiked, she and her longtime boyfriend were able to buy two new trucks, plant an orchard, and build a barn and a garage. “It’s changed our life,” she said, in an interview for an oral-history project in 2src14. “And then let’s look at how it’s contributing to the rest of the state. We paid sixty thousand dollars in taxes last year. That’s enough money to support five families on welfare.”

Keene, who considered herself a good steward of Maine’s natural resources, told the historian that she had watched “a complete gold rush” nearly destroy sea urchins in the late eighties and early nineties, and that she didn’t want to see the same thing happen to eels or any other species. “I believe in having a future,” she said. That future already seemed compromised by factors unrelated to conservation. Keene described pervasive drug abuse and a “lot of alcoholism” Down East, where, as in many rural areas, it can be hard to get help. (A record seven hundred and twenty-three Mainers died of overdoses in 2src22.) Keene said, “How does a local community hold on just by their fingernails, you know?”

“They say it gets easier after the third demon child.”

Cartoon by Dan Rosen

Responsible fishermen don’t disapprove of rules; they simply want more of a say in making them. Regulators were worried about the American eel’s decline, but fishermen were seeing elvers in what Keene called “Biblical” numbers. Eelers wondered if the regulators were perhaps looking in the wrong place, or conducting their census on nights when eels didn’t “go.” Keene said, “Just because they didn’t go doesn’t mean they’re not there.” No one seemed to know exactly how many elvers there were, or whether any decrease in population was caused by overfishing or more properly attributable to the turbine gantlet and other hazards. Jason Bartlett, a Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist who specializes in eels, told me that he is increasingly worried about a swim-bladder parasite that messes with an eel’s buoyancy: “If they can’t get off the bottom, they’re going to die before they get back to the Sargasso.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in its most recent significant assessment of A. rostrata, acknowledged a decline but indicated that “the American eel population is not subject to threats that would imperil its continued existence.”

The A.S.M.F.C. has never increased Maine’s over-all quota. Individual quotas are not made public, and fishermen reveal their number about as quickly as they give up their favorite fishing spot. Some of those who remember the unregulated days bristle at any limit (“Fishermen always grumble,” one elverman told me), but they were especially infuriated when the lottery was introduced, in 2src13, and their quotas stagnated while the state admitted newcomers. Keene said, at the time, “How is that rewarding someone that’s been in this fishery, that breathes that fishery? That makes their own gear, that is dependent on it, that understands it, that respects it? I still have a license because I obey the law. How is that rewarding good faith?”

Glass eels are an ideal target for subterfuge, because they run at night and because once they’re out of the water it is impossible to prove where they came from. The risk-reward ratio makes them irresistible. Eel smuggling, reportedly a four-billion-dollar-a-year trade spanning at least three continents, has been called the world’s least known but most profitable wildlife crime. (The G-7’s Financial Action Task Force, a watchdog federation of thirty-nine countries, has identified wildlife trafficking as a “major transnational” racket, on par with arms dealing and drug running.) Glass eels are among the most bootlegged protected species in Europe. In 2src21, an investigation into the assassination of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse revealed that his government had been bearing down on traffickers of narcotics, weapons—and eels. Moïse believed that the eel trade should be regulated and taxed, the Times reported, noting, “Many of the eels go to China, but the Haitian police are investigating the industry as a way to launder illicit profits.”

Glass eels have been found in passengers’ luggage at airports in Amsterdam and Brussels. In 2src17, British border agents checked cargo bound for Hong Kong and discovered, hidden beneath a batch of iced fish, four hundred and forty pounds of illicitly harvested elvers. Half were dead. The smuggler had allegedly spent two years trafficking more than five million eels, with a market value of nearly seventy million dollars. He used a warehouse in Gloucestershire as a way station, and the eels had been sourced in Spain. Smugglers there have operated in Algeciras and Tarifa, at the southern tip of the continent, just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, which has restricted elver fishing since 2src11.

Although A. anguilla tends to be the most trafficked eel species, in 2src22, Hong Kong alone imported almost twenty-eight thousand pounds of rostrata from the United States, according to Hiromi Shiraishi, a researcher at Chuo University. The amount far exceeded the quotas in Maine and South Carolina combined. When I asked Maine’s fishing commissioner, Patrick Keliher, to explain the discrepancy, he told me, through a spokesperson, “Elvers from Maine are being tracked very closely, and it’s our belief that if there are additional elvers entering the supply chain, it’s because of the illegal activity that has been so prevalent in Canada the last two years.”

In Canada, glass eels are the most valuable seafood by weight. Last year, a woman who lived near Hubbards Cove, in Nova Scotia, was alarmed to wake at three in the morning to see men outside, in balaclavas, taking glass eels from a stream. In another incident, a dispute over eels ended with one man reportedly assaulting another with a pipe. Canada’s minister of fisheries and oceans temporarily shut down the country’s fishery, saying, “It was simply too dangerous to let this continue.”

Elver fishing in Canada was cancelled again this year, but eelers went on eeling. (By late April, the authorities had charged ninety-five people with doing so, including five Mainers.) First Nation members argued that treaty rights exempted them from federal regulations. In a Facebook video, a First Nation fisherman named Cory Francis announced plans to set fykes on the Annis River in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, a hundred and twenty-two miles across the Gulf of Maine, and declared Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans a “criminal element” and a “rogue group.” Accusing the agency of “racially profiling Indigenous people,” he said, “You can go fuck off.”

Not long after conducting his seminal elver study, Sheldon, the Maine Department of Marine Resources employee, left government service to become a lobsterman. His boat sank, and he turned to eeling. He both fished and operated as a buyer, once explaining to a TV news station, “The small man can get into it.” The license plate on his truck read “EEL WAGN.” A sign in his headquarters, in Ellsworth, said “Smoking is permitted here in the shop. Lying is to be expected. Everyone welcome here.”

Sheldon often talked to the media. He was the one who swallowed a live eel in front of the BuzzFeed reporter. In that reporter’s profile, published in 2src13, we find Sheldon in his sixties, with both a flare gun and a 4src-calibre Glock, serving bucket-bearing customers at a temporary headquarters set up in a cheap motel room. He’s on the phone with “Chinese guys who wired him $6srcsrc,srcsrcsrc on handshake deals.” The year before, Sheldon had “paid his fishermen $12 million for elvers (about a third of the estimated $4src million paid out in Maine over the season).”

What few knew then was that federal agents had launched an interstate poaching investigation, called Operation Broken Glass. Baby eels were being harvested up and down the East Coast in places that banned elver fishing, and passed off as having come from Maine. Dealers were knowingly buying and selling illicit elvers, learning only too late that they’d been talking to undercover officers. Twenty-one men were ultimately charged with trafficking more than five million dollars’ worth of glass eels.

Sheldon was one of them. By the time federal agents raided his business, he was considered the grandfather of the industry in Maine. Sheldon had “cornered the market, basically,” a fellow-elverman later said. In federal court, a prosecutor noted, “By his own pronouncement and by the consensus of the community, he knows more about elver fishing than anyone.”

In October, 2src17, Sheldon pleaded guilty to trafficking two hundred and sixty-eight pounds of glass eels from states where elver fishing is illegal. “Bill Sheldon not only facilitated a black market in illegal elvers—he encouraged it,” the federal prosecutor said, at sentencing. “He didn’t just buy illegal elvers—he provided poachers with advice and equipment. He didn’t just dodge the law himself—he told other people what to say if they got caught.” The prosecutor told the judge, “This was just greed.”

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