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An Unexpected Gold Rush in Small-Town Maine

Jan 03, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Rachael Morrison

In the dark of the night, a group of fishermen huddles around a net. They’re gathered at a riverbank in Ellsworth, Maine, collecting one of the most lucrative seafood in the world: elvers, or baby glass eels. A 5-gallon bucket brimming with these translucent creatures is worth $50,000—higher than prices for gold.

“It’s like Christmas!” exclaims Rick Sibley, one of the fishermen. “I can’t wait to see what’s in that net.”

This is a scene from Rachael Morrison’s short documentary Elvers, premiering today on The Atlantic. Filmed at the peak of a veritable gold rush, Elvers peels back the curtain on a black market in the United States to reveal a tragedy of the commons.

Freshwater eels are a highly-coveted delicacy in Asian cuisine. In Japan, the world’s top consumer of eels, elvers are grown from their “ghost in the water” juvenile stage—as Sibley put it in the film—to adulthood, when they are killed and served as unagi. Little is known about the eel lifecycle, however, so they can’t be bred in captivity and factory-farmed. The Asian aquaculture industry instead relies on wild-caught elvers from rivers and coastal waters.

In the past, this Asian market was for the most part fed by European and Japanese eels. American eels were worth around $24 per pound, just a fraction of international eel sales. But European and Japanese eel populations have declined by 90 percent since the ’80s. In 2010, the European eel was listed as critically endangered, leading the European Union to ban all exports. Then, in 2011, a massive earthquake rocked Japan, destroying the country’s major aquaculture operations. By 2012, global demand for eels had skyrocketed the price for a single pound of elvers to $2,000.

Maine is one of only two states, along with South Carolina, where elver fishing is legal. (The states issue 425 and 10 elver licenses per year, respectively.) In 2012, 21,611 pounds of elvers were caught—four times more eels than were harvested in 2009. At the peak of the gold rush, there was no legal limit to how many elvers a licensed fisherperson could catch. Most of the transactions were off the books, made in cash out of pickup trucks along rivers in remote rural areas. A black market soon emerged on the moonlit waterways across the Atlantic seaboard. Licensed dealers bought glass eels from poachers, mixed them with legally-caught eels in Maine, and doctored shipping dossiers en route to Asia.

For the fishermen of Ellsworth, the gold rush was a welcome economic boom and an end to the struggle to hold down multiple jobs. “We’re so poor here,” says Darrell Young, a licensed elver fisherman interviewed in Elvers. “We have no money. When you sit here thinking about how eels are worth $2,000 a could go get a quarter of that and fill my refrigerator full of food or pay a bill, maybe.”

This would all come crashing down in 2014. Beginning in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement—along with a long list of local, state, and federal agencies—launched Operation Broken Glass, an undercover sting operation to address elver poaching and trafficking. It resulted in 19 arrests, and new regulations were imposed on the elver fishing industry. Today, licensed fishermen receive personalized catch limits and are required to have transaction cards that the government uses to closely monitor sales. Buyers are required to operate a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Meanwhile, the fate of the species hangs in the balance. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has red-listed and declared all three species of freshwater eel to be endangered. The American eel is precipitously in decline; the population has dropped to 1% of its highest levels.

“This is a universal story,” Morrison told me, “about how we mismanage natural resources in the global economy.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.