According to the environmental group the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, American eels are endangered and at a “very high risk” of extinction.

That news was both shocking and perplexing to Maine’s hardworking fishermen, who have built a successful eel fishery by sustainably harvesting the species for many years. Their first-hand experiences and the overall success of Maine’s eel fishery are only a few of the many reasons to be skeptical of the environmental group’s designation.

While the conservationist organization is sounding the alarm with its late-2014 addition of American eel to its “Red List” of species it considers endangered, scientists and fishermen have been working for decades to keep the species sustainable.

Stocks have been closely monitored by eel scientists here in Maine and coastwide by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and area fishermen have collaborated closely with regulators to implement aggressive quotas and other management measures to protect the species.

In 2012, meanwhile, Maine recorded its highest-ever level of eel recruitment – the number of new eels that enter the population – and numbers have remained positive since. There is simply no evidence of an eel crisis in Maine.

In a stock as wide-ranging as American eels – found everywhere in the Atlantic from Greenland to South America – there have certainly been regional problem spots, such as in the Great Lakes, where eel numbers fell dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. But despite these localized setbacks, eel populations have proven to be largely stable. In fact, in recent years, there has been a string of positive developments.


Four states in addition to Maine saw record-high eel recruitment levels in 2012. And just north of the border, in Nova Scotia’s East River, recruitment has trended up since 1995 – peaking in 2014 at their highest levels ever recorded.

Another potential bright spot for the species, and one that has gone relatively unstudied up until now, is the potentially large number of eels located in the saltwater portion of the species’ range. These areas are subject to little fishing pressure or compromised habitat, and the number of eels there could number in the tens of thousands of tons.

Based on the species’ genetic diversity, scientists have speculated that its annual breeding population may be anywhere from 50 million to 100 million eels. All of this evidence adds up to demonstrate that the ability of the eel population as a whole to successfully reproduce is not seriously threatened.

This is confirmed by perhaps the most in-depth, conclusive examination of the American eel, a 2007 report compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether eels merited listing as endangered.

This comprehensive study found that American eel stocks are, in fact, “wide-ranging,” “stable” and “not endangered.” It found this by examining measures of recruitment across the geographic reach of the species, which the agency concluded was the way to “best represent the species status range wide.”

There is admittedly much that we don’t know about American eels. And there are certainly many threats facing the species, foremost among them the widespread diminishment of their freshwater habitat because of problems such as pollution in rivers and estuaries and the proliferation of hydroelectric dams.

But despite these issues, the evidence at hand is conclusive enough to state that eels are not endangered, and certainly not in imminent threat of going extinct.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s designation is thus not the best reflection of the available data. It presents a misleading picture on the current state of the American eel, and is counterproductive to the future of a sustainably managed eel fishery.

For a species that has become a cornerstone of both our fishing community and a crucial Maine industry, and with a product that commands such a high value internationally, the public deserves better information about American eel than the slanted, inaccurate portrayal presented by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

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