When one thinks "international smuggling ring," they probably don't think eels. But here we are. Apparently, Maine has a huge eel smuggling problem. No, really.
It all started in 2011, when Maine officials started noticing illegal poaching of baby American eels, also known as glass eels. These little guys are delicacies in parts of East Asia and can go for upward of $2,000 a pound, but they are native to Maine. Thus began a glass eel trafficking problem. Poachers net upwards of $500,000 for their illegal trades. All together, officials estimate they've made more than $30 million. Who knew eels in the state of Maine would make for such an exciting (yet sad) scenario?
As of May 2017, several men have been arrested in connection to the trafficking. Still, the state of Maine is concerned. And rightfully so. These nefarious eel stealers need to be stopped.
An Uptick In Demand Made These Eels A Hot Ticket
The eels are most desirable in their juvenile state. Farms in Asia take the baby glass eels and then sell them to restaurants when they've reached maturation. These little eels are nearly transparent, and local fishermen have sold them for years, usually for a modest amount. Then, in 2012, a shift in the market happened. Asian buyers were consuming the American eel as a delicacy. Suddenly, people were paying more than $2,000 a pound, and local fishermen were making upwards of $10,000 a night.
There were some other factors, too. In 2010, the European Union banned exports of the European eel because of its dwindling population. Then, in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japanese eel farms. Since scientists weren't able to figure out how to breed eels in captivity, they looked to the US and the American eel.
Eel Poaching: How Does It Work?
There are only two states in the US where you can fish eels – Maine and South Carolina – and Maine is the major player. There is a catch limit, and only people with a license are allowed to fish, and there are a limited number of those. Seeing the big bucks licensed fishermen were reeling in, unlicensed poachers got in on the action. They also tried catching the eels in areas that were in off-limits zones.
People have taken extreme measures to illegally fish the eels. One guy donned a wet suit and swam upriver in the middle of the night to catch them. Officials had to do an undercover operation – called Operation Broken Glass – to catch these guys, working for years to figure out who was involved. In the end, more than 12 people were arrested in 2017.
This Poaching Could Have A Major Ecological Impact On The Eels And Their Habitat
The American eel was already seeing a decline in its numbers before the extreme poaching began. This decline has only been exacerbated by the poaching. The International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the eel on its "red list," meaning, if a change isn't made to help eel populations, they could go extinct in the wild.
The European and Japanese eel are both critically endangered, as well, thanks to Asian market demands for the delicacy. Both the state of Maine and the federal government are looking at steps to curb poaching and to help the eel population.