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The Invisible Sea Creatures Worth More Than Uranium, Silver, and Kobe Beef Combined

• April 05, 2013 • 2:50 PM

Baby eels: the new hot thing to exploit for financial gain.

There is something happening in Maine, which is notable in itself because, well, Maine. But it’s also notable because it involves Native Americans, the government, and obviously lots of money. Oh, and these crazy-expensive, glass-colored baby eels.

So, these eels. They’re called elvers, and in North America they’re usually born near the Bahamas and then carried up the East Coast—as far north as Canada—by currents. The Economist says they “look rather like clear noodles.” They’re worth about $2,600 a pound. For reference: uranium is around $42.25 per pound, silver $445 per pound, $500 for Kobe beef, and  $1,300 for blue fin tuna. (In case you’re wondering, it’s somewhere around $63,502.90 for a pound of cocaine, but I don’t know why you would be wondering that, so never mind.) With export restrictions for European elvers, and a growing demand in Asia, the price of North American elvers has shot up over the past year or two. More from The Economist this past December:

Restrictions on exports of European elvers, and a shortage of them in Japan after last year’s tsunami, have stoked demand for the American variety, often sold to Chinese or South Korean buyers who rear and sell them as food. In Maine, the commissioner of marine resources estimated in August that this year’s haul of about 18,000 pounds had fetched nearly $40 million, more than five times last year’s figure. In 2010 elver exports totaled just 3,158 pounds, valued at $585,000.

This triggered a sort of gold rush, sending hundreds of people with nets into streams where the so-called glass eels typically migrate at night from the Atlantic Ocean to freshwater lakes and ponds. The state issued some 400 elver-fishing licenses, and an Indian tribe provided 200 more to its members, but poaching remained widespread despite stiffer penalties enacted by legislators after prices started to climb last year. Colonel Joe Fessenden, Maine’s chief of marine law enforcement, says the poaching this year was “unbelievable,” with well over 300 documented violations, the most he has ever seen.

Now, add that to the latest issue in Maine. The state is only allowed to issue 744 licenses. The Pammasaquody tribe were given the right to 200 of those licenses, but they say they’ve sold 525, while the state itself has issued around 400 more—all of which comes out to something bigger than 744. And yet, the U.S. government, which set that 744 number, has decided they don’t care.

Here’s an unlikely outcome to all of this: something good.

There’s the conflict between Maine and the Pammasaquodies, which goes way back and beyond the elvers, and then there are the elvers themselves. Not surprisingly, the elver population in Maine is dropping, and there’s a pending decision—and much pressure in favor—of the American eel being listed as an endangered species. A commission of 13 Atlantic states, which actually determined that the population of elvers is depleted, will meet in May in D.C. to determine how to and whether or not to change fishery laws of elvers—and whether or not to ban it outright.

(Via Brendan Koerner)

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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