Birth and Larval stage
Both adult American eels and European eels spawn somewhere within the vast Sargasso Sea, a gyre in the Atlantic. Eggs mature into leptocephalus, which drift along on the Atlantic currents while maturing slowly (maybe for as long as two years) into glass eels.
The eels mature from their larval form to transparent glass eels. We tend to use the terms interchangeably, but once they enter freshwater and start eating, they start to gain color and become elvers. They make their way upstream from landings all along the Atlantic Seaboard and Caribbean. In Canada, elvers are showing up in smaller numbers.
Maturation and Spawning
Left to their own devices, eels mature into yellow eels in freshwater rivers and lakes. They’re known as silver eels when they’re sexually mature (for females, this could be 15-20 years in Maine waters, as little as 3 for male) and it is at this point that they make their way back to the Sargasso to spawn (and, it is presumed, there they die).
Only two states in the U.S. — Maine and South Carolina — allow for the capture and sale of these BABY eels. The eels are so tiny at this stage that there are about 2,500 of them in a pound. Once caught, they are stored in tanks and then prepared for shipment to Asia.
The eels are shipped live to various farms in China and throughout eastern Asia. Here, the eels are force fed a high protein diet, causing them to mature at a highly accelerated rate. Within a year, they’re ready for harvest.
The eels are processed and then shipped worldwide for consumption. Chinese eel exports are worth approximately $790 million a year and account for eight percent of all Chinese aquatic product exports. The largest importer of eel products from China is Japan; almost 90 percent of all eels consumed in Japan come from China.
The American Eel: Long Distance Traveler
The American eel, Anguilla Rostrata, is born in the Sargasso Sea and can travel thousands of miles before reaching and entering freshwater as a glass eel or elver. In the U.S. it is caught in this baby stage only in Maine and South Carolina and almost always ends up sold to the Asian eel farm market, at big profits, to be grown to maturity and sold again, at big profits. Here’s the irony””some of these eels ultimately come back to the United States after being raised and processed in China, Taiwan, Korea or Japan. If you’ve eaten eel in an American sushi restaurant, you could well have had what was once a Maine elver. Some wonder, why not grow those eels out in America or even Maine?