After 43 years in the business, fisherman Don Sprague knows a lot about the ups and downs of the elver economy. He’s been to China and seen the farms where Maine elvers get fattened up on a protein-rich diet, like foie gras ducks being readied for harvest. In the last couple of years, he’s also traveled south to teach Haitian and Dominican fishermen the basics of the trade, knowing full well that he’s training fledgling competitors. With prices averaging $1,822 per pound in 2013, elvering is an irresistible business to get into, particularly for impoverished countries.

What Sprague would like to see locally but hasn’t, is an effort to maximize the potential of this extraordinarily valuable resource through aquaculture. He thinks Maine should have its own eel farms. Each individual baby American eel (Anguilla Rostrata) that is shipped from Maine and flown to China, Taiwan, South Korea or Japan likely gets sold to a fish farmer for about $1, a great price for something smaller than your average earthworm. But when it is an adult, now weighing anywhere from 3 to 16 pounds, that same eel will be worth $8 to $12 a pound in Asia, where eel is a classic, and treasured, part of the diet.

The short-term profits for baby eels are sweet – elvers are Maine’s second most lucrative water-based resource after lobster – but the long-term potential of growing those eels out to the more valuable adults here in Maine? Much sweeter, Sprague believes. Eel might be low on the list of Mainers’ favorite foods, but that doesn’t mean more of a profit couldn’t be made from other cultures’ love for it, or from the American sushi market. Sprague spells out the equation. “That $2,000 the fisherman got?” he said. “Now you multiply it times six.”

If he had the money or the technical know-how, he’d build an eel farm himself, he said. Right now.

“I think we are missing our best chance,” he said.

Sprague’s perspective is just one take on a natural resource that was an essential part of the pre-settler, Native American diet in Maine. The pun is dubious, but almost unavoidable: It’s hard to get the straight story about eels; their saga is as twisty and geographically far reaching as the eels themselves. The American eel winters in the mud and spawns so far out at sea that no one knows exactly what happens to either the male or female eels once they’ve reproduced (death is presumed).

“We know a lot, but we don’t know a lot,” said James McCleave, the University of Maine Orono marine sciences professor who has spent the last 40 years studying eels and is one of America’s experts on the species. He came to Maine in 1968 expecting to focus on Atlantic salmon, but the eel, then plentiful and even more of a mystery, won him over.

Over the course of his career he’s seen eels go from being considered a food source for humans to bait to catch more appealing fish and now, in its early stages, a wildly expensive export. Glass eels or elvers (the names are often used interchangeably, but a glass eel is a transparent eel in – or coming from – saltwater while an elver has made the transition to freshwater, where their diet changes their color) are worth so distractingly much right now that the Maine biologists trying to assess the population count have to guard their traps from poachers, setting the traps with their own traps to see if anyone has opened them (like spies putting pieces of paper in their hotel room doors when they leave).

DEPLETED RESOURCE

Other than South Carolina, Maine is the only state in America that currently allows fishing for elves, although the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission this year cut Maine’s quota for the season, which began April 6, by 35 percent. The 2013 catch was 18,076 pounds, the second largest catch the Department of Marine Resources has ever recorded and worth $32.9 million. In contrast, in 1994, the first year the department began keeping track, fishermen caught 7,347 pounds, valued then at $404,085. Maine isn’t special in having this resource; it’s just special in allowing elvers to be caught. Elvers – and eels themselves – can be found all along the Atlantic seaboard. Unlike salmon, they have no particular affiliation with place, no need to return to Mama’s lake or river.

Along the Atlantic coast, modeling of the yellow eel population (that’s a young adult eel, not ready to spawn) in 2012 showed the species at its lowest levels since the 1950s, said Maine’s Department of Marine Resources’ resident eel expert Gail Wippelhauser, a former student of McCleave’s who also serves on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s technical committee. The species was deemed “depleted.”

And to the north, the drop-off has been significant. “The Canadians have declared them as endangered in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces,” McCleave said. “They seem not to be coming there in the numbers that they did historically.”

But incongruously, Wippelhauser said, other states are asking the commission to allow glass eel fishing in their rivers. Back in 1996, when the commission closed fishing for the silver eel – a sexually mature eel ready to mate – along the Eastern seaboard, some states opted for yellow eel fisheries instead of glass eels. The yellow eels, mostly used for bait, were a more lucrative fishery then. Now they want a do-over, “because they too would like to make a lot of money,” Wippelhauser said. “They had already made their decision, and maybe they thought it was the wrong one.”

In this atmosphere of greed and reduced stock, even the man who helped write a 2010 petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the American eel declared an endangered species – a ruling is expected in 2015 – can see some logic in Sprague’s suggestion to establish an aquaculture program.

“Right now, you are not deriving any benefit except for the sale of what is arguably a diminishing resource,” said Dr. Rob Roy Ramey, a Colorado- based scientist who worked on the petition on behalf of Council for Endangered Species Act Reliability. The American eel is a “forgotten species,” he said. Given how much conversation there is about elvers in Maine these days, forgotten might seem like an odd word. But Ramey makes a good point: Is there a less cuddly potential endangered species? Factors working against it include dams, pollution, pesticides and even a parasite that travels from Asia in the ballast water of ships and negatively affects the eels’ swim bladder and thus, scientists worry, can threaten the ability to reach the Sargasso Sea. But its monetary worth gives the eel a fighting chance, Ramey said.

“Here is something that has a market value,” he said. “And that can sometimes be leveraged to help save it.” Before it goes the way of, say, the sea urchin, another Maine catch that turned overnight superstar because it was coveted in the Asian market. The pressure crashed the resource. Forty years ago, you couldn’t walk the rocky coast without seeing urchins discarded by the gulls. Now you rarely see them.

LONG-DISTANCE TRAVELERS

In the average Stephen King-style nightmare, eels are the snake-like beasts that make lake swimming at night seem inadvisable. Or at least, creepy. Reality: They’re harmless and they are not snakes, but rather, catadromous fish. This means they live part of their lives in ocean, then freshwater, and return to ocean water to spawn (salmon do this in reverse). Baby eels are a type of fish that few in Maine have ever tasted (more on that later) or, perhaps more important, want to taste. They are long- distance travelers, taking one of the most astonishing journeys of any creature on earth, spawned in the Sargasso Sea and floating through months and years to get to the Atlantic coast and from there, the inlets that lead to the freshwater homes they need to mature.

That’s how far they travel before they enter the human food chain and start flying instead of swimming. The luckier ones, those that don’t get caught as elvers and shipped to Asia, end up traveling back down Maine’s rivers to swim back to the Sargasso Sea after say, 15 to 20 years of cruising Moose- head Lake. Some avoid being chopped up in the turbines of hydropower plants while headed downriver. If they make it to the Sargasso Sea, they fulfill the eel life cycle by spawning and dying.

As larvae, they began their journey from the Sargasso Sea, tiny, leaf-like beings drifting along on currents – or directed, no one quite knows for sure – and along the way they grow into skinny creatures about 6 inches long. At this stage they’re called glass eels because they are transparent. The European eel, Anguilla Anguilla, does the same thing, leaving the Sargasso Sea but heading east and, scientists believe, maturing faster.

At the glass stage, eels are capable of scaling a 6-foot plank set at a 90-degree angle to get over a dam that blocks their path to fresh water. Chris Uraneck, one of the Department of Marine Resources biologists who helps track the annual arrival of elvers on the Maine coast near Boothbay, puts it very simply: “They’re amazing.”

90 POUNDS IN A NIGHT

Catching elvers is a relatively new business. The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been keeping track of Maine elver landings since 1994. When Rod Mitchell, founder of Browne Trading and perhaps Maine’s foremost fish hustler, started fishing for elvers in the 1980s, there were just a couple of other guys doing it, and he only started because a famous French chef asked him to. Mitchell’s grandfather fished for eel and sold them to the Boston market, where the primary customers were French and Italian families who had traditionally eaten them on holidays. But then chef Jean-Louis Palladin asked Mitchell to go looking for them. Eating glass eels is a Basque fisherman’s tradition, and Palladin had a Spanish mother. He wanted to serve them at the Watergate Hotel, in Washington, D.C., so he sent Mitchell on an errand. “He said ‘You just have to wait until springtime, get yourself a butterfly net and catch them,’” Mitchell said.

Those were the glory days of elvering. One night, in a midcoast location – even though he didn’t renew his elver license this year, Mitchell declines to say where as he doesn’t want to cause a run on the spot – Mitchell put his foot in what he thought was a puddle on a ledge. The ledge, typically covered with running water, had been exposed by the temporary stopping of a dam. The puddle turned out to be a 5-foot hole; Mitchell was chest deep in frigid water.

“Oh was that cold,” Mitchell said.

And crowded. “I crawled out and I was covered with baby eels.” He grabbed a net and ended up with 90 pounds of elvers. In a single night. If the year had been 2013, that would have been $163,890 worth of elvers. Back then it was swell, but yielded more like $2,250.

Mitchell supplied some adventuresome Maine chefs, like Sam Hayward, then at 22 Lincoln in Brunswick and willing to pay $90 a pound for the elvers. The waitstaff would make jokes about the buckets of “elephant sperm” sitting in the kitchen, but Hayward liked the challenge. He would dip the live elvers – which he called piballes, because that was the French term Palladin used – into a soft flour and then shake them into a skillet of hot peanut oil. “They fried instantly and seized up into thin, crisp golden curls,” Hayward remembered.

Mitchell, who also exported elvers to Spain, said his restaurant customers lost interest when elvers hit $300 a pound in 2007.

Despite all the buzz, it seems elvers are an acquired taste not often acquired. Wippelhauser can’t do it (“they’re too cute” she said). McCleave tried them in England, but doesn’t remember the taste. Mitchell has a hard time describing the flavor. Sprague had them boiled in sea salt in the ’90s by a Spanish chef visiting with the thought of doing major export from Maine; he said they were “a little bland.” Hayward enjoyed the novelty, but now he questions the sustainability of the resource and doesn’t serve them at Fore Street.

It is rare to find any chefs still dishing up elvers in Maine today, although Masa Miyake does have a fondness for them as an amuse bouche. On a recent April day at Miyake in Portland, sushi chef Hwansoo Kim carefully laid out an appetizer platter of 11 glass eels, served with a ponzu sauce and mince of scallions and micro amaranth. The eels, which appear on Miyake’s menu as nore sore, the Japanese name for baby eels, tend to surprise customers, said assistant manager Emily Phillips. “There’s some ‘whoa, what do I do with this?’” she said.

Miyake’s goal is to expose Western diners to the concept of “nodogoshi,” a textural rather than taste sensation. It’s something he experienced at a restaurant in his native Japan, where glass eels are served only rarely (he ate them in the southwestern part of Japan, but has also seen elvers used as chicken feed in Japan). There’s definitely “nodogoshi” involved – eating a raw elver is like nothing else. Chewing doesn’t quite work, and a steady awareness of its shape lingers in the throat long after the fish is gone.

But here’s the crazy thing. Miyaki likes serving local elvers but on that day, the Maine elver season hadn’t opened, so Miyaki’s nore sore had been imported. From Japan.

DOWN ON THE EEL FARM

The Japanese like eel, particularly as kabayaki – butterflied and broiled or grilled in a sweet sauce. The preference is for Anguilla Japonica, the native Asian eel that spawns in its own version of the Sargasso Sea, in the North Pacific. But that population has declined in recent years. In 1982, global landings of Anguilla Japonica were 2,691 metric tons. By 2012, that figure had dropped to 271 metric tons. Because of the decline, Taiwan limited its season on elvering for the first time this year. Although the Japanese have made major progress in their efforts to get eel to reproduce in captivity, they haven’t quite closed the loop. The mortality rate is too high. There are eel farms in Japan, but Richard Winslow of the Japanese Consulate in Boston explained that there aren’t enough. “Japan is limited in the extent to which it can supply its own demand, so they go elsewhere, namely China.” Ninety percent of the eel consumed in Japan comes from China, and is largely Japonica and a mix of European and American species. Maine elvers are, relatively speaking, just a drop in the bucket on Asia’s fish farms.

The European eel is also in trouble. And because many countries in Europe have a fondness for eating eel, the European Union shut down exports of baby eels in 2009, opting to keep what they’ve got for the many European eel farms. It’s been frequently reported that the tsunami wiped out eel farms and/or breeding grounds in Japan, driving up the value of Maine’s elvers. Actually, it was the end of European exports that caused the primary spike in the price of Maine elvers in 2011. Winslow said most of Japan’s eel farms are in the Shizuoka Prefecture, south of Tokyo, so the tsunami didn’t affect them. Katsumi Tsuakamoto, a professor in Nihon University’s Laboratory of Eel Science and one of the world’s foremost eel experts (and a friend of McCleave’s), wrote in an email from the research vessel Walther Herwig III saying that Americans have a “great misunderstanding” about eels and Japan.

“Tsunami occurred in the north of Japan,” he wrote. “Glass eel catch is in the south. So there is no relation between both.”

The bulk of Maine elvers end up in eel farms in China after what might be as much as a 50-hour journey, packed in plastic bags of water and pure oxygen. As soon as they arrive, they’re fed a protein-rich diet that accelerates what would have been a normal growth rate back in Maine waters by about 1,000 percent. They’re harvested at about 10 to 12 months of age. The eel likely end up being processed into kabayaki in Chinese factories. The irony is that some come back to the United States to be served in sushi restaurants. And ever more frequently: In 2005, 3.3 percent of China’s processed eel (the kind you might get as sushi) was exported to the United States, according to a 2013 report by the Institute of Developing Economies. In 2011, that percentage was up to 11. America imported 2,130 tons of processed eel from China in 2012.

WHY NOT MAINE?

You could see why Sprague fancies the idea of carving out a niche for Maine to start supplying American sushi restaurants. The state could attempt to farm and process its wild eel, but the consensus is, it tastes too “muddy” for most people’s palates. That’s flavor, but McCleave said that eels’ naturally fattiness makes it easy for them to retain toxins they might have picked up in less than pristine lakes and rivers. “Eels in the wild that are 10 years old have been out there collecting nasties for 10 years,” he said. Farming makes more sense then. According to a 2012 report in the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, “eels have the potential to become one of the highest-quality, highest-value aquaculture products because the science for raising the fish is well established.” And Sprague isn’t the only one who wonders about doing it in Maine.

“I usually get a call once a year from somebody who says ‘Why aren’t we aquaculturing eels?’” Wippelhauser said.

There are plenty of arguments against it, she said. Would the cost of business eliminate any hope of profit? Labor in China is cheap. Environmental permitting in the U.S. is complex. The hard winters in Maine would require heating the water the eels live in and covering them with greenhouses. “Nobody seems to be really willing to take that on,” Wippelhauser said. And the water would have to be heated to well above typical Maine temperatures. “It’s not that eels can’t make it in cold climates,” McCleave points out, “it’s just that they grow much slower.”

Yet one consideration, the complexities of getting American environmental permits to run eel farms, could be seen as an argument for it. That same report by the Institute of Developing Economies outlined 50 instances between 2006 and 2012 when Chinese exports of processed eels to Japan were found to violate Japan’s health standards: They contained either agricultural chemicals, antibiotics or other pollutants. Japan rejected some shipments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cracked down on farm-raised seafood imports from China in 2007, citing “unsafe residues” of drugs not approved for use in the United States, halting some imports and demanding adherence to American standards

For people who think of fish as being a more healthy choice for dinner, it’s enough to give one pause. Or the impetus to build domestic eel farms, assure a high standard of safety and market the eels that way. “A domestic eel industry in Maine could market around the ‘local-production’ (local foods) and guaranteed high-quality ‘clean’ product and do quite well with eastern seaboard white-table restaurants,” Dan Burden, an Iowa State University Extension researcher working with Iowa’s expanding aquaculture industry, suggested in an email.

According to the 2005 Census of Aquaculture, there are only three eel farms in America (a new census is expected in October). So the market is open. Sprague believes European investors interested in opening eel farms in North America are turned off by what’s happened in Maine in recent years. After all, Mainers have starred in a reality series about the cutthroat world of the elver fishery, become poachers, evaded taxes and waged battle over quotas and licenses, particularly with the Native American tribes. “Maine is getting a bad reputation in the eel business,” Sprague says. And it’s a shame, he believes. “They should be grown right here.”

Either way, the clock is ticking. U.S. Fish and Wildlife turned down a 2004 petition written by a pair of brothers, one of whom lives in Maine, to add the American eel to the endangered species list. The agency seems to be giving more credence to the pending petition submitted by the Council for Endangered Species Act Reliability. Ramey, its author, hopes at minimum for a resetting of American priorities for its Anguilla Rostrata. “At least now it is on the radar,” he said.

Contact Mary Pols at 791-6456 or:

mpols@pressherald.com or

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