Changes in the fisheries industry worldwide have turned live baby American eels into a valuable commodity, leading to a black market fuelled by poachers in the United States stepping up their activities and potentially jeopardising the species.
The high price of young American eels has increased as demand remains high in Asia, including Japan, despite a declining global catch due to continued overfishing.
In the United States, as means of promoting conservation, elvers can only be legally harvested in the states of Miane and South Carolina. But licensed U.S. fishermen complain poaching has become widespread as prices have climbed in recent years. The price of young American eels began to rise in 2011 and in Maine, the price soared to US$890 per pound (450grams) in that year – approximately five times the previous year’s level. Prices continued to soar, eventually reaching round US$2000 in 2015.
The high prices have led to more cases of unlicensed eel fishing in other states including Massachusetts and Virginia where eel fishing is prohibited.
In response, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service together with other agencies are investigating illegal harvesting and sales in ‘Operation Broken Glass’, a reference to the eel’s glassy skin. This has resulted in number guilty pleas for illegal trafficking resulting of about US$4 million worth of elvers.
In the United States a successful conviction can result in poachers facing a maximum prison sentence of five years or a fine of up to US$250,000.