Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)

Chapter 5. The First Taste of Freshwater

In late winter, about mid-March, when plates of ice still line the muddy banks of tidal creeks, baby eels are just making their way from the sea into freshwater streams of southern New England.* From Little Compton, Rhode Island, to Manhattan Island, tiny fish, small as matchsticks and clear as glass, ascend the estuaries and lagoons invisibly, moving from salt to fresh.

A year or so before, between February and April, these fish were hatched from eggs in the Sargasso Sea. They drifted and fed and grew in the rich seawater, sheltered in their early days in thick mats of sargassum weed and by their transparency.** Riding currents flowing to the west, the first eels entered estuaries and freshwater rivers of the Caribbean Islands about November. By January larvae were making their way into the Gulf of Mexico and toward the east coast of Florida. Subsequently, they reached estuaries and bays of the Carolinas and Virginia and Maryland. By March, April, and May the rivers of southern New England, Maine, and Canada were receiving their manna, including the stream that connects the sea to the pond across the street from my home in Connecticut.

The ocean spawning location is strategic—at the head of a particular current, a river in the sea, which ensures that the hatchlings will be carried back toward the coast. How the young eels know to move west out of the ocean river to enter the freshwater rivers of North America is a mystery—if they didn’t, they would continue riding the North Atlantic Drift, like corks in a river. And how some eels enter a given river and others move on to populate different rivers, distributing themselves more or less evenly throughout the range, is also a mystery.

By the time the eels first enter freshwater from the sea they have slimmed from their leaf-shaped larval stage, though they are still totally transparent except for two black dots for eyes. The glass eels move up the estuaries at night on the incoming tide, largely unnoticed by humans as they swim past, under, and around our businesses, homes, dams, and bridges. Days after entering freshwater, the clear fish become pigmented, like thin black shoelaces, at which point they are called elvers.*

The juveniles feed and grow and become resident eels in an estuary, river, or lake, occupying a particular place for ten to one hundred years, depending on the species. At this stage they are sometimes referred to as yellow eels because they are usually yellow-brown to olivaceous in color. When they are of age to migrate and spawn they undergo physiological changes that prepare them for their long sea journeys—their eyes get bigger and take on a bluish cast, their skin becomes thicker, and their pectoral fins elongate. Steel-colored, with black backs like many ocean fishes, these migrating eels, fat and strong, are referred to by biologists and fishermen alike as silver eels.**

Eels once traveled up the Mississippi and tributaries as far as Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois, in numbers significant enough to support commercial fisheries. In New England old-timers talk of “slicks” or “rafts” of glass eels moving up tidal creeks in spring, so thick they formed mats on top of the water. To overcome obstacles such as vertical walls or waterfalls, they would form braids with their bodies, a phenomenon known by old Mainers as “roping up.” These days an eel caught in the Midwest is an aberration, and many say that such huge runs of glass eels don’t happen anymore. The range of the American eel is shrinking, the total population declining, and while some attribute it to habitat loss and pollution, others blame a commercial export fishery for glass eels to Asia that developed in the late 1970s but did not hit its peak until the mid-1990s—an event that fishermen and conservation officers alike refer to as the eel gold rush.

The international trade in eels, a multibillion-dollar industry, is driven largely by Japan’s appetite for the rich, fatty flesh.* The eel trade remains dependent on the capture of wild fish, because no one has figured out how to reproduce eels in captivity in an economically viable way. In the early 1990s the population of native eels in Japan, Anguilla japónica, began to nosedive, and prices for eel became prohibitively high. Asian dealers started to look elsewhere to meet the demand and soon found that similar freshwater eel species lived in Europe and North America. Europe had existing fisheries for eels, mostly for the adults, with several historical eel-fishing centers—the Skåne region of southern Sweden, the Basque regions of France and Spain, Comacchio, Italy, and Lough Neagh, Ireland, to name a few.* Once cherished by Native Americans and early white settlers (one of the first things Squanto taught the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony was to fish for eels), the eel had been largely ignored as a food fish in modern America.** This made North America, even more than Europe, a perfect target for export to Asia—eels were plentiful and there were no limits on how many could be taken.

One issue that had to be overcome was getting the eels from North America or Europe to Japanese markets alive, since very often they are killed, dressed, and prepared all at once in eel-only restaurants. Instead of shipping adult eels, which was costly (because of the shipping weight), dealers focused on the capture of glass eels, which could be shipped by the millions to warehouse-style farms in China and Taiwan where they are fattened.* Another advantage of farming eels from the juvenile stage is that the fish can be raised to the preferred size, about eighteen inches, so that a single eel, halved, splayed, grilled, and served over a bed of rice, will fit into a black lacquered box with a red interior—a dish called kabayaki unagi.**

Initially, the price paid to American fishermen on the docks and riverbanks for glass eels was about $30-$45 a pound. In 1997, record-low catches in Japan sent prices to a high that has not been surpassed since. All of a sudden fishermen were getting paid upward of $250 a pound. Enterprising Asian dealers and American seafood wholesalers began training oystermen, lobstermen, cod fishers, Chesapeake watermen, carpenters, insurance salesmen, and hairdressers to dip or set nets for glass eels. These provisional fishermen were happy to work long nights during the glass eel run to put a few extra hundred (or thousand) dollars in their pockets.

Naturally, competition for the best eeling spots in river mouths and estuaries increased. Fishermen began to stake out their territories and defend them with their fists and by packing guns. Dealers were toting tens of thousands of dollars cash to pay fishermen and driving tank trucks full of very valuable live glass eels to airports in Boston and New York to be shipped to Asia. There were incidents of fishermen sabotaging each other’s nets, pouring bleach in competitors’ tanks, firing warning shots, and getting into nasty fights. A fish that hitherto had been just about worthless now was the most valuable food fish on the coast. With the money came trouble; the eel gold rush was in full force.

At that point, nothing was illegal about the fishery. No one seemed to care about eels in any life stage; no regulations existed to protect them. Glass eels had swum invisibly by everyone for centuries, but all of a sudden they were being exported in staggering numbers, thousands of metric tons, enough to potentially cripple the population. State biologists and conservation officers finally woke up to the mass exploitation of the resource—this kind of fishing pressure was not sustainable. Within a few years the coastal fishery for glass eels and related export businesses was shut down. Today, outside of a limited fishery in South Carolina, Maine is the only state in the United States that allows the export of baby eels.

Wishing to learn more about the glass eel fishery in Maine, and the international trade of glass eels in general, I contacted a state biologist named Skip Zink, who designed and built ramps and ladders to facilitate the upstream migration of glass eels over Maine’s many impoundments. Skip suggested I contact Pat Bryant, who set her nets in the mouth of the Pemaquid River, on Maine’s breathtakingly beautiful and rugged granite coastline.

I called Pat at her home in Nobleboro one May day, during midseason for the glass eel run, and asked if I could come up and learn more about the fishery. She said she was very busy, but I was welcome to come by and see her tanks of glass eels and export operation. I had a lot of questions. Did she sell to Asian dealers directly? Did she know of any eel dealers that I might be able to meet and talk to?

“Asian dealers?” Pat laughed in her raspy voice. “Hell, there’s one asleep on my couch right now.”

When I arrived at Pat’s home and business, about five hours’ drive from my home, she was just leaving for Portland to meet with her urchin dealer from Japan (eels were her primary but not exclusive export). As promised, there was an Asian man on her couch, a buyer from China with whom she worked closely.

“Jonathan can answer some of your questions,” Pat said.

Jonathan Yang spent four or five hours a day “babysitting” the thousands of pounds of glass eels being kept alive in aerated holding tanks in Pat’s barn. He guarded them from theft, checked periodically to make sure they were looking healthy, and was simply present in the event that there was a power outage so he could start the generator and keep the aerators going. But mostly he sat on the couch smoking cigarettes.

I sat in a chair opposite Jonathan on the couch. He had a big mop of straw-like black hair, a broad nose, and wide eyes. He wore a black jacket, black pants, and black shoes, and continually scratched his scalp, complaining of blackfly bites.

“You’re from China?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I Taiwanese.”

“Do you stay here with Pat?”

“No,” he said, “I stay in Portland.” With his accent it sounded like he said “Poland.” He spoke good English but in a choppy and almost comically stereotypical Chinese way, squinting through the haze of cigarette smoke.

I carried in my bag some photos from my recent trip to New Zealand and showed them to Jonathan as a way of demonstrating my interest and travels concerning eels. One in particular caught his interest in an almost devotional way. It was a picture of Stella kneeling on the bank of the small spring-fed creek in Kawhia. Eels were coming out of the water to take dog food off the grass and she was petting them on the head. The eels were very close to Stella’s bare feet.

“I know this eel,” he said with intensity, “but where, what island? Ah, New Zealand,” he said, ashing his cigarette and nodding slowly. He examined the photo even more closely, closing one eye and pointing to the large eels in the photo with an unusually long pinky fingernail. “In Taiwan we call this eel lo moa. See how it feeds out of water? It has to be strong to move like this. Our native lo moa in Taiwan is almost same, but has spots.* Only lo moa can climb up on land to eat. When heavy rains, they come up onto the land. They even climb mountain. But in Taiwan now this eel is very few,” he said. “We eat them all.”

“You eat big eels in Taiwan?” I asked.

“Yes, only Taiwan people eat this eel. In China no eat. Wives make soup in wintertime from lo moa. Make husband strong, make her happy. But it’s very expensive. A family or a few wives go to market together, buy one eel, and split in pieces. They cook very slowly for few hours, until it make broth, add ginger root.”

The name lo moa, Jonathan said, means “like mafia, strong and discreet.” This term described the characteristics of this particular eel, qualities that wives hoped their husbands would possess once they ate it. Taiwanese men will drink the soup three times a day for two weeks. According to Jonathan, the effect can last up one year. “You can make love every day you feel.”**

Jonathan looked at the photo of Stella and the eels with keen commercial interest, but also with a genuine fascination for their size, their age, and their ability to feed out of water.

“The largest lo moa I ever see was in market in Taiwan,” Jonathan said. “Seventy pound. But I hear about one, more than one hundred. They ship big eel each in own plastic bag with a single ice block. The skin must stay wet and fish must make it to market alive—otherwise worth nothing.” Jonathan said that he had dealt in lo moa in the past, but tightening export regulations in New Zealand and their protected status in Taiwan made it difficult to get them.

Some years ago, however, a friend of Jonathan’s told him about a unique island he’d visited in Micronesia. On this island there were many freshwater rivers, more than any other island in the region. It rained almost every day, two hours in the afternoon, and then it was sunny and very hot. It was lush and green and beautiful and the people were very nice. And there, Jonathan said, “he find many big eels, just like our Taiwan lo moa.”*

This place was called Pohnpei (Jonathan pronounced it “Pon-a-pey”), a pristine rain forest paradise—a tiny volcanic island a little more than twelve miles across. It was easy to get there from Taiwan, with a brief layover in Guam. “Make very easy to ship lo moa.”

“Have you been there?” I asked Jonathan.

“Yes, few times. When I go there, I fish for lo moa. The people see me, they go away. I say, ‘Why you scared? Just eel.’ ”

It was not only the numerous freshwater streams that were responsible for the abundance of eels, but the fact that the indigenous Pohnpeians considered the eels sacred and therefore didn’t eat them.

“If you make book about eels,” Jonathan said, “you must go Pohnpei. Every village, they have different story about lo moa. One story, virgin, she washing clothes in the river. Lo moa swim up inside her.” He laughed. He said the island was so small you could drive the whole road around its periphery in two hours. There were many pools, too, where the people kept eels and fed them.

Jonathan had once exported eels from Pohnpei. He said that the glass eel business was “much better” and that’s why he was focusing on that and nothing else. But then he told me the story of what happened to Mr. Chen, the friend who had first introduced him to Pohnpei, and conceded that this was the real reason he’d stopped dealing in giant eels.

Chen liked Pohnpei so much he lived there for a time arranging several shipments of big eels to Taiwan. One shipment, however, was ill-fated.

Chen had collected about two thousand pounds of eels and prepared them for transport. As usual, he kept them in an open tub of water, a circular tank, outside his bedroom window. The night before the eels’ departure to Taipei, one of the fish, the largest, which Jonathan had described as being around ninety pounds, kept Chen awake all night, lifting its head out of the water and crying like a human baby. Chen got a bad feeling and slept little that night, but the next day he went ahead with the shipment anyway.

When the plane stopped in Guam to refuel, Chen discovered to his horror that the eels had been loaded in a cargo hold of the plane that was so cold they had frozen and died. Since the eels were only valuable in markets alive, this was a huge loss.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed, sad at this twist.

“When he got back to Taiwan, Mr. Chen had bad dreams,” Jonathan told me, lighting another cigarette. “Every night he dream about eel. An army of eels flying out of the sky, hundreds of eels, hitting him in the chest.” Jonathan used both hands to mimic the action of the flying eels coming toward him, and tapped with his fingers on his own chest. “He afraid. He tell me, ‘Jonathan, I quit the business.’ I say to him, ‘Don’t tell me those stories. You make me scared.’ ”

Not one month later Chen died of a heart attack.

As I recorded the details of the story in my notebook I came to the chilling realization that the tales I had heard in New Zealand—about things that happened to people when they took too much from the resource—were very similar to Jonathan’s contemporary one. If a Maori were to interpret this story, he or she would most certainly conclude that Chen had ignored the warnings of a guardian eel. The monster eel that cried like a baby was a taniwha.

Jonathan asked me why I was studying eels. I told him that my initial interest had come from a fascination for the life history of the eel—the only fish that journeys from freshwater to the middle of an ocean to spawn—and had evolved into an exploration of the eels’ importance in world cultures. Jonathan said that he felt we were alike: we both liked travel and to meet interesting people.

Several times during our conversation, Jonathan got a call on his cell phone and began speaking Chinese. The calls reminded me that I had come to Maine to learn about the glass eel trade, yet I could not get away from my fascination for the other reality of eels, what manifested as folklore.

“This is busy time,” Jonathan said to me, “peak season for glass eels. We about to make big shipment to China. Over one thousand kilos.” I did a quick calculation—five million eels.

Earlier in the year, Jonathan had been buying glass eels, Anguilla rostrata, from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba, when they first entered freshwater there in November. Then he was in Asia in January, buying Japanese glass eels, Anguilla japonica, from fishermen in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

I imagined a possible scenario for one of the glass eels in Jonathan’s next shipment; the extended migration it could unwittingly be a part of. An eel, born in the Atlantic Ocean, netted in the mouth of a river in coastal Maine, is flown from Boston to Hong Kong, raised in a farm of nearby Fujian Province, cleaned, grilled, and packaged in factories on site, and finally flown to a New York airport, ending up on a plate in a sushi restaurant in Manhattan (80 percent of the eel consumed in the United States is pre-prepared in factories in China). That same eel, of course, could end up alive or dead in a restaurant just about anywhere in the world.

Jonathan told me that the majority of eels that Japanese eat are of American or European origin raised in farms in China. They prefer to eat their native eel, Anguilla japonica, but because it is rare, it is also much more expensive.

In 1997, Jonathan went to North Korea to buy Anguilla japonica glass eels. He couldn’t wire money to a bank in North Korea because, he said, the government changes it to local currency and then it’s worthless. So he brought a rolling carry-on bag filled with $1.2 million in U.S. hundred-dollar bills. With that money he bought 160 pounds of glass eels, which comes out to about $7,500 per pound. “At that time,” Jonathan said, “more than price for gold.”

Even in an average year, glass eels are the most expensive food fish in the world.

“This is very big business, very risky,” Jonathan said.

The market price for glass eels is based on the market price for adults. But if the price for adult eels falls during the fourteen to eighteen months it takes to raise a glass eel for market, Jonathan’s Chinese buyer can go bankrupt.

“One year, the farm sells high, they all drive MercedesBenzes,” Jonathan said. “Next year, price falls, they’re riding bicycles.”

Jonathan said he didn’t spend the majority of the year anywhere in particular. He was on the road all the time, here and there in rented apartments or small homes—he didn’t have a permanent address. “I don’t like to own things,” he said.

Before he went into eels, Yang traded sandalwood in Tonga, New Caledonia, and Fiji. When the sandalwood was gone he bought two ships and fished giant clams. “In Japan they eat giant clam muscle,” he said, “good for sashimi.” After losing money with clams he went into the lucrative business of selling shark fins in China for soup. But when he saw dolphins caught accidentally on long-line hooks being dragged aboard ship, beaten to death, and thrown back into the sea, he quit. “When they take the dolphins on the ship,” Yang said, “you know, they are weeping—you can see the tears.”

He said he did his job because he liked nature, which to me seemed counterintuitive. A man who loves nature shows his affection by exploiting it? He explained that the Chinese believe that the resource can never be used up—“they eat anything,” he joked—but he personally knew that it could.

In the meantime, Pat had returned from Portland and the meeting with her urchin dealer. Jonathan had to go visit another eel supplier, Bill Sheldon, in the town of Bath. I gave him a ride because his car was on the fritz. It was a beautiful May day.

* At this time of year in New Zealand and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere, their autumn, adult eels are beginning to migrate to the sea to spawn.

** How long it takes for an eel larva to get to the coast of North America from the time it hatches is still speculative-no one has been able to follow a juvenile eel on its ocean journey to know for certain. It is thought that it takes a larva two to three years to reach the coast of Europe from the Sargasso.

* The word elver is thought to have come from a phenomenon in mid-May on the Thames that eel fishermen used to term the “eel fair.” At this time of year many accounts describe (and this was not unique to the Thames) a run of young eels, each about two inches in length, that formed a dense column five inches wide that ran uninterrupted for many miles. The following account is given in The Natural History of the Fishes of Massachusetts by Jerome V. C. Smith, 1833: “As the procession generally lasts two or three days, and as they appear to move at the rate of nearly two miles and a half an hour, some idea may be formed of their enormous number.” Smith continues with a telling account of how the eels divide their numbers as they move past tributaries of the main river: “When the column arrives at the entrance of a tributary stream … a certain portion of the column will continue to progress up the tributary stream, and the main phalanx will either cross the river to the opposite bank, or will, after a stiff struggle to oppose the force of the tributary branch in its emptying process, cross the mouth of this estuary, and regain its original line of march on the same side of the river.” Unfortunately, such epic migrations no longer occur on the Thames.

** The distinctiveness of the eel’s appearance in its various life stages led to the creation of numerous species names for the same fish. In Europe alone there were over thirty species names given for what is now considered a single species of eel, Anguilla anguilla.

* According to Tesch’s work on eels, total world eel harvest from fishing and aquaculture in 1995 amounted to over 205,000 metric tons, with an estimated market value of $3.1 billion. Eels represented 12 percent of the total value of world aquaculture production that year. A single eel farm in Canton, China, was capable of raising, cleaning, grilling kabayaki-style, freezing, and packaging eight thousand tons of eels annually, most of which was shipped to Japan. Farms in China require infusions of hundreds of millions of glass eels annually to keep up with demand.

* Curiously, several of the places where eels are still important culturally, such as the Basque region and Northern Ireland, also support local nationalist resistance groups (ETA and IRA, respectively). You could include the Maori in New Zealand as a nonviolent example.

** On March 22, 1621, the Pilgrims made peace with Massasoit of the Wampanoag Indians. The next day Squanto went fishing for eels to feed the Pilgrims, who were starving. The following account is from Mourt’s Relation, written contemporaneously: “Friday [the 23rd of March] was a very fair day. Samoset and Squanto still remained with us. Squanto went at noon to fish for eels. At night he came home with as many as he could well lift in one hand; which our people were glad of. They were fat and sweet. He trod them out with his feet; and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.”

* The number of glass eels in a pound can vary greatly. Canadian glass eels are small, with about 2,700 fish in a pound. North Carolina eels are about the same; in South Carolina they’re bigger, averaging 2,200 per pound. In Maine they average 2,500 per pound.

** Technically, grilled eel without rice is called kabayaki unagi, and the dish with rice is called unagi donburi, or unajyu.

* The large native eel of Taiwan would be the tropical freshwater species, Anguilla marmorata, which resembles the New Zealand longfin, Anguilla dieffenbachii, but its skin is mottled with marble-like markings.

** One of the greatest stories of the aphrodisiac qualities of eating eel can be found in Brillat-Savarin’s The Philosopher in the Kitchen. The story, called “The Dish of Eel,” tells of a woman known throughout Paris as the “Ace of Spades” who serves a dish of eel to a group of parish priests from the local diocese. After the priests devour the delicious meal, “the reverend men were stirred in an unaccustomed manner, and as a result of the inevitable influence of matter on mind, their conversation took a ribald turn.” They told of college escapades and scandalous rumors, but later were “ashamed of the things they had said.” They attributed everything to the dish of eel.

* Anguilla marmorata, the lo moa species found in rivers of southern Taiwan, is also native to freshwater streams of the islands of Micronesia and east through Indonesia.