Tiny, elusive eels ‘like gold’

Jimmy Livingston, a third-generation eel fisherman from Moncks Corner, uses a hand-sewn net that is 25 years old.

MONCKS CORNER — The catch was gold. Anglers went after it at night, out of sight and little regarded by most people in the Lowcountry.

The haul earned as much as $2,000 per pound, and millions of dollars were made.

They were netting eel.

Not just any eel. The anglers trapped tiny American eel elvers by funneling them into fyke nets that work like big windsocks. Elvers are young eel — silvery, translucent slivers about the size of skinny little earthworms.

They swim in from the seaweed in the deep Atlantic, to take up residence in freshwater rivers. They have not fed yet, and if they can be caught before they begin to feed, they can be sold to international buyers.

The eels are transported to Asian countries such as Japan and China and grown on a farm with eel feed they otherwise would not eat.

In the Orient eels are like lobster here — so sought-after that the Asian catch has been depleted. Meanwhile, a parasite is killing remaining eels.

No one has been able to spawn eels in captivity, and in Asia they have been trying for years.

With consumers there eager to pay, the import elver price shot up — a couple years ago elvers were just a few hundred dollars per pound.

“It’s like gold,” said Allan Hazel, an S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist who monitors the elver catch.

Thousands per pound

Elver fishing traditionally has been subsistence fishing, making a few dollars during late winter when other fish can’t be caught.

Not many people in the Lowcountry bothered.

The market price fluctuates year to year. Elvers can be as tough to gather as gold flakes. It takes an estimated 2,500 of them to make a pound.

But if an angler happens to hit a run, the tiny eels can pile into a net.

“In some places you can catch several thousand per night,” Hazel said.

In the Lowcountry, 1,000 pounds is considered a banner night. This year, that would have brought as much as $200,000.

American eels are considered to be in severe decline by federal monitors. The catch and season are tightly regulated.

South Carolina and Maine are the only Eastern states that still allow elver fishing. In Maine, really the heart of the industry, more than 400 licenses per year are issued.

In South Carolina only 10 licenses are issued, and fishing is limited to the Cooper River, trying to ensure that enough elvers survive.

A lot of years, the commercial catch here has been zero — a combination of low prices keeping anglers out of the water and the hit-or-miss nature of the catch.

Elvers move at night, the mass of them in runs that last only a few, unpredictable nights on any one river.

“They can taste that freshwater and they go for it,” said Jimmy Livingston, a third-generation eel fisherman from Moncks Corner. “It’s almost a flip of the coin whether they’re going to hit or not.”

Stealthy business

Anglers are notorious for not giving away secrets like the sweet spots to fish.

Elver netters have a reputation for stealth.

In the late 1970s, wildlife officers dealt with cases of guns being drawn and truck windows shot out, Hazel said. There were tales of spies, and elver anglers running decoy trucks to misdirect them.

“These fishermen potentially are making more than a million dollars. They are secretive, protective of spots,” Hazel said.

There’s some truth to that, Livingston said.

“I think there was some sneakiness going on. There was some stealing. Crooks will be crooks.”

But there’s more to it. In the Lowcountry, elver fishing is family heritage.

The fyke nets are hand-sewn because they can’t be bought. The net Livingston uses was made 25 years ago.

The fishing, like the net, becomes a kind of heirloom. The families who have those 10 licenses asked for them back when there was little demand, and they have held onto them for years.

“Nobody cared about (fishing for) the elvers when they were $20 per pound. It was just something you could do to get by,” Livingston said.

But the good years became pretty good. Asian buyers first turned up in the Lowcountry in the 1970s, and prices rose.

In the 1990s prices jumped to $800 per pound before settling to $100.

“It got a little fevery. People found out they could make money,” Livingston said.

The catch, meanwhile, has fallen from as much as 4 million pounds in the 1960s to about one million pounds today.

In the 1990s, with prices jumping, the state responded to federal concerns by restricting licenses, assigned by lottery.

As existing license holders, the families who had fished elvers all along were grandfathered in.

They felt they were portrayed in public as the bad guys.

“It didn’t take much. It’s very easy to villainize a small group,” Livingston said.

The crisis

Elvers are as good as gold right now, and that worries everybody.

The fishery might soon be shut down.

“The population is at the lowest we’ve ever seen it,” Hazel said.

Livingston gets a wry smile and shakes his head. He didn’t elver fish the past two years, concentrating on the family farm and his other businesses.

He didn’t think the price would stay high, much less climb.

But, “absolutely,” he said, he’ll be out next spring if he can.

He thinks there are more elvers, in Lowcountry rivers at least, than federal studies account for. The Cooper catch dropped after a canal was built in 1986, diverting flow from Lake Moultrie, he said, and likely moving elvers to other rivers.

“I hope they don’t (shut the fishery down). I think it would be premature,” he said.

Federal studies suggest that the decline is so precipitous that U.S. Fish and Wildlife is considering adding the American eel for the Endangered Species List, a move that could well end the catch.

Meanwhile, a committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the federal group in charge of regulating the eel fishery, will meet this month on what Kate Taylor, council fishery management plan coordinator, called “the elver crisis.”

The committee may recommend further restrictions on the catch or closing the elver fishery all together — action that could be taken by the end of the year.

“If they say that’s it, game over,” Hazel said.

Poaching is a constant concern. Overseas buyers, catch and anglers themselves are closely monitored.

“They’re very tight. Those game wardens are up there watching those rivers. They have to, it’s so lucrative,” Livingston said.

If the open market is restricted more or shut down, and a black market develops, the poaching threat doesn’t go away — not by a long shot. There are a lot of coastal rivers and few wildlife officers.

“Obviously, if prices stay up at $2,000 per pound, (poaching) becomes a bigger issue,” said Lt. Robert McCullough, of DNR law enforcement.

As it stands, elvers are gold.

The last two seasons,“it’s gotten crazy,” said DNR biologist Hazel.

“Calls from Japan, Taiwan, Korea. A call from a Hollywood reality television producer. Every day the (telephone message) light was flashing.”

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