Increasing eel demand encourages poaching and black market 8-8-17

Increasing eel demand encourages poaching and black market

FIS Fish Information & Services World News

Tuesday, August 08, 2017, 02:00 (GMT + 9)

The big demand and high prices reached by baby eels (elvers) have spawned a black market that is jeopardizing the species, as it was wanred by wildlife officials.

Given the seriousness of the issue, law enforcement authorities have launched a crackdown on unlicensed eel fishermen and illicit sales along the East Coast of the United States.

Baby eel fishery is worth many millions of dollars and are sold to Asian aquaculture companies to be raised to maturity and have become a linchpin of the sushi supply chain, The Associated Press reported.

In response to licensed US fishermen's complaints, the US Department of Justice, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies are investigating clandestine harvesting and sales.

Operation Broken Glass, a reference to the eels' glassy skin, has resulted in 15 guilty pleas for illegal trafficking of about USD 4 million worth of elvers. Two people are under indictment, and more indictments are expected.

In Maine, more than 400 licensed fishermen, who make their living fishing for elvers in rivers such as the Penobscot in Brewer and the Passagassawakeag in Belfast every spring, welcomed the move to protect the eels and the volatile industry.

Federal prosecutors informed that in one case three men pleaded guilty in 2016 to trafficking more than USD 740,000 worth of elvers harvested illegally from the Cooper River in the Charleston, South Carolina, area. In another, Richard Austin pleaded guilty in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, to trafficking more than USD 189,000 in illegally harvested elvers from 2013 to 2015.

The federal agencies involved in the poaching investigations informed that there is no end date for their probe involving investigators who go undercover to track poachers, posing as people illegally fishing for elvers. They follow eel migrations, hoping to catch illegal fishermen on the spot. In addition, they track catch records, which are required by states, to look for possible illegal fishing and selling along the supply chain.

Another initiative carried out in Maine to prevent overfishing was setting limits for fishermen to catch elvers for only a few weeks every spring.

The eels hatch in the ocean waters of the Sargasso Sea, a weedy patch of the Atlantic Ocean between the West Indies and the Azores. They then follow currents back to rivers and streams from Greenland to Brazil. Mature eels that avoid hazards including fishermen's nets, predatory fish and the turbines of hydroelectric plants will one day return to spawn in the Sargasso.

US Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement Ed Grace pointed out that eels are important to the marine ecosystem because they serve as both predator and prey, feeding on fish and mollusks and serving as food for larger fish, seabirds and turtles.

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