Why eel poaching has become a cottage industry in America over the past decade.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated August 08, 2017
eel poaching
Credit: Rodger Jackman / Getty Images

Eel isn’t the most common item on most American menus; it’s a staple at sushi restaurants and in British cuisine, but other appearances in domestic recipes tend to be few and far between. Likewise, eel fishing is only a drop in the bucket of America’s fishing industry overall. Still, recent market fluctuations have made that drop a bit bigger leaving the U.S. government to deal with a problem you probably didn’t even realized existed in America… eel poaching.

According to the Associated Press, for years, the eel harvest in America, which is legally confined to only Maine and South Carolina, was only worth about $1 to $3 million. But that changed in 2011: Global eel supplies dropped while demand in Asia grew, and by 2012, the U.S. eel supply exploded in value to over $40 million. Such an exponential increase in price made the eel black market a lot more lucrative. And at the same time, poaching eels is probably a bit easier than dealing in other types of fish.

Eels are harvested when they are babies, also called “elvers,” and these elvers are then raised to maturity in captivity. Illegally catching and transporting tiny eel babies, which are about the size of little worms, is significantly easier than smuggling, say, a full-sized Bluefin tuna. As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and some other agencies launched Operation Broken Glass (a real operation named after the eel’s skin) and have had no problem rounding up wrongdoers. To date, the operation has netted (pun!) 15 guilty pleas for illegal trafficking, with other indictments pending and on the way. Overall, the government has busted people for around $4 million worth of illegal elver activity, more than the industry was worth just seven years ago.

But protecting baby eels is about more than just protecting the fishing industry. Harvesting eels is extremely regulated because of the impact they can have on the ecosystem. “While the big charismatic animals like bears, big cats and eagles tend to grab all the public attention, it's often the smaller, more obscure animals that are crucial to regional ecosystems and economies,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement Ed Grace told the AP. It's yet another reminder that folks should sniggle responsibly.