New England Fisheries

Thanksgiving Eel: A Fish to be Thankful For

The Maine elver season starts March 22. Image via dec.ny.gov.

Around this time of year, people are eagerly thinking about the food that they will prepare for their Thanksgiving Day feast. While turkey has become the contemporary centerpiece of the holiday meal, it may be surprising to know that originally, a fish was served as one of the main dishes. Firsthand accounts of Plymouth residents tell of the banquet of river eels that were served at the first gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans. According to The Pilgrim Republic, “On April 4th, 1621, Samoset and Tisquantum were still guests of the Colony. In the afternoon, the latter went to Eel River, apparently, and by treading in the mud caught, with his hands alone, as many fat, sweet eels as he could bring back to his entertainers.” Since the 1800s, eel has faded out of American cuisine; however, recently, it has started to regain people’s attention.

In the past four years, the American eel fishery has emerged as one of the most lucrative, as well as contentious fisheries in the state of Maine. From early spring through summer, tiny, translucent, ribbon-like fish make their way up the streams of the East Coast. These are glass eel, also referred to as elvers, the juvenile form of the American eel. They have traveled all the way from the Sargasso Sea, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda. As they leave the ocean and start to migrate upriver, fishermen are able to sieve them from the water using fyke and dip nets. However, the catch is not designated for American markets; the elvers are shipped all the way across the world to Asia, to be raised in aquaculture facilities.

Eel, known as unagi in Japanese, is a cherished food in Japanese cuisine and represents a multi-billion dollar industry. Although eel has fallen off the Thanksgiving menu, in Japan, there is a special holiday for eating eel, and different regions have established unique ways of preparing the dish, each claiming to be more delicious than the other. Unfortunately, due to the popularity of eel, the native Asian species, Japanese eel, has been overfished and has suffered from a precipitous population decline

The declining Japanese eel population has reinvigorated a previously stagnant American glass eel fishery in the state of Maine. Glass eel landings jumped from 3,158 pounds in 2010 to 20,764 in 2012. In the spring of 2012, glass eel were selling for as much as $2,600 a pound, with the total fishery valued at $40 million. Prices and landings have since come down, but the industry has remained highly lucrative. This profitable fishery has ignited numerous controversies over rights to the fishery between Maine residents, the native tribes of Maine, conservationists, and policy makers.

In the recent wake of amplified fishing, increased fishery value, and management controversies, Maine was forced to impose new fishery management practices including an overall state quota, individual quotas, and electronic transaction monitoring cards. Additionally, for the past four years the American eel has been up for consideration for addition to the Endangered Species List. Even though a recent assessment determined that the American eel was “depleted” in many locations, the decision in October ruled that protection under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted. As a result, the eel fisheries will continue to persist.

Regardless of the ruling, evidence shows that the American eel is highly impacted by oceanographic changes due to climate change, habitat loss, migration barriers, and parasites. Moreover, with the increasing global popularity of Japanese food and consequential demand for unagi, the fishing pressures on all eel populations are continuing to increase. If the fishery in Maine is going to survive, attention is needed on these other obstacles that could hinder the species’ success. Without continual conservation measures, America is at risk of losing a fish species with deep ties to its history, culture, and heritage.

 

Catherine Morse is a CLF Ocean Conservation Program Volunteer.


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