There haven’t been many eels around in a long time. The Asian market for baby eels — or elvers — is probably to blame, what with prices up around $2,000 a pound and plenty of poachers willing to risk the law to cash in on the action.
Cotuit was infested with eels in the 60sthrough the 70s. A kid couldn’t fish off the Town Dock without hooking into one. My grandmother was a big fan but I never developed a taste until I experienced broiled eel in sushi form — unagi/unago — and have even tried to duplicate the recipe after my cousin landed a whopper a few years back in his crab pot.
My grandmother had an interesting way of skinning the things. A nail pounded through the head into the side of the boat shed, a quick slit around the neck with a sharp paring knife, and then a quick “un-socking” with two pairs of pliers gripping the slimy edges of the neck cut. This all while the eel went beserk and tied itself into figure-eight knots and spun around the nail like a pinwheel.
The joys of a Cape Cod childhood. The woman meant business when it came to food, even if she was allergic to hardshell bivalves.
Anyway, those mature eels — anguilla anguilla — or the European Eel, aren’t what the poachers are chasing. They are looking for the small fry heading up the coastal streams from the ocean. Eels are “catadromous” fish: they spend their lives in fresh water (there is (or was) a mysterious albino eel in Thoreau’s Walden Pond that evidently crawled over land to get there) and return to the sea — specifically the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda — to spawn. The elvers, or glass eels, make their way back from the floating rafts of seaweed in the Sargasso and take residence in the ponds of New England.
They make excellent striped bass bait when they are about a foot in length. Bluefish destroy them. They are an utter mess to try to hook and can literally tie themselves in a knot when provoked.
Now the eel is critically endangered, and with scarcity comes the cruel law of economics which means they are even more valuable to those who eat them, hence the extraordinary poaching price of $2,000 a pound. Hydroelectric dams and their turbines do a terrible number on them as well.
The Cape Cod Times today reported on the arrests of two poachers:
“The price spike stems from a surge in demand from aquaculturists in Asian countries who purchase the wild juvenile elvers, raise them until they reach a half-pound then sell them in the sushi market, explained Mitchell Feigenbaum, principal of Delaware Valley Fish Co. of Portland, Maine. A significant drop in recent years in the number of wild Asian glass eels, combined with a European ban on exporting their own wild stock, meant the U.S. elvers suddenly commanded high prices. Feigenbaum said the price increase really isn’t that large when you consider the profit farmers make selling the adult eels on the high-end sushi market. A good farmer, he said, could turn $2,000 worth of glass eels into $20,000 in sales.
A dozen years ago, the price for glass eels was $25 a pound. In recent years, it climbed to $325 and last year reached $900. Now at more than $2,000, the tiny translucent eels, less than 6 inches long, newly arrived in the Cape’s rivers and streams from the Sargasso Sea this spring, were particularly inviting to poachers.
Harwich police Sgt. Brackett had no way of knowing, but the 2 pounds of elvers swimming in those unpretentious buckets could have fetched $4,000 to $5,000 when sold in Maine, one of only two states where it is legal to harvest and sell them. With prices that high, competition for prime spots on Maine’s waterways has been fierce and the yields are nowhere near what fishermen get in Massachusetts, where the elver fishery is banned and the competition virtually nonexistent.
“I hear stories of someone coming in (to dealers) with 50 pounds of eels and I think, they must have been to Massachusetts,” said Gail Wippelhauser, a Maine Department of Marine Resources scientist specializing in eels. “There’s noplace in Maine where you can get that many eels in one night.”
If you see anyone creeping around a run at night, drop a dime to the police please.