Eel Smuggling Is a Real Thing — and It’s a Surprisingly Dark Business

Eel smuggling has long been running rampant in Maine, but some poachers are finally having to pay the price.

A Maine fisherman named Michael Bryant was recently ordered to pay $45,000 in restitution, pay $5,000 in fines and serve three years probation after pleading guilty to trafficking baby eels.

Bryant and other fishermen were illegally poaching eels known as elver, or glass eels.
 

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They’re the skinny, snake-like, baby version of American eels, and they’re huge in Asia.

American eel

Juvenile eels–elvers–in a ramp for passage study at Conowingo Dam. Credit: Maryland Fishery Resources Office, USFWS


 

Once in Asia, the elvers are grown to maturity. They’re then sold as food to hungry, eel-loving consumers in countries like China and Japan.

eel smuggling
 
Starting around 2011, the elver trade really took off. The growing Chinese population combined with declining eel populations in other areas like Japan and Europe gave American fisherman a huge opportunity to sell the eels to Asia for enormous profits. 

In 2012, 1 pound of elvers went for more than $2,500 per pound. That was the most profitable year, but prices can still fetch more than $1,000 for a single pound of the eels.

The only problem is, a lot of those fishermen were making those profits illegally. When the elver trade first exploded, eel fishing was relatively unregulated in Maine.
 

Eel smuggling was like something out of the Wild West. But this time there wasn’t gold in the hills; there were pounds and pounds of elvers in the water.

American eel

Elvers climbing to base of Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. Elvers are juvenile eels that migrate to brackish waters and begin to develop gray to greenish-brown pigmentation. Credit: Maryland Fishery Resources Office, USFWS


 
Starting in 2014, though, the state of Maine tried to slap some regulation on the rampant eel trade. Maine issued a slew of new controls, including limiting the amount of elvers that fishermen could trade.

It also began to track all financial transactions. That made it more difficult for people who had been dealing in cash only and underreporting or concealing their elver catches. It also led to the arrests of fishermen like Bryant.

Wildlife activists are hopeful that the stricter regulations and punishments for those guilty of poaching will put an end to illegal eel trafficking. But Bryant had some even more simple, sage advice about ending the trade.

When asked by a reporter to comment following his sentencing, Bryant reportedly had three words: “Don’t poach eels.” Seems like good advice everyone would do well to follow.