Over the past decade, eel fishermen in Maine and all along the Atlantic coast have been part of a responsibly managed fishery, adhering to stringent regulations developed across state, provincial and international lines. Even as demand for eels has spiked in the last few years, the fishery has set a course of proactive management, with sustainable catch limits helping to secure the future of the stock.
Despite these notable management efforts, in late 2014, the environmental group International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed American eel on its “Red List” of endangered species. But a close examination of all of the available evidence — including a 2007 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which the agency has called “the most comprehensive analysis of the American eel’s range wide status ever undertaken” — reveals that the IUCN designation is misplaced, at best.
Some researchers predicted a species-wide collapse following a steep decline in the number of Great Lakes eels beginning in the 1980s. But after decades of observation, this prediction has not borne out for the rest of the population. Instead, populations have remained resilient. This was noted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in its report, which stated that “the species currently appears stable.”
The key measurement here is the recruitment — the number of new eels that are born and enter the eel population — of younger glass eels. It’s one of the best indicators of the health of the eel stock and was recognized by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s report as the measurement that “best represents the species status range-wide.”
One of the more important records of eel recruitment is out of the East River in Nova Scotia, where scientists, community organizations and fishermen have worked together since 1995 to measure glass eel recruitment in the region. Similarly, since 2000, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has required its member states to measure glass eel recruitment in their waters. These studies have, on the whole, shown a similar pattern: while the number of glass eels reaching the coast is highly variable from year to year, there has been no sustained downward trend over time. To the contrary, five of the state surveys, including one conducted in Maine, detected record high numbers in glass eel recruitment in 2012. The East River survey set a recruitment record of its own in 2014.
Inexplicably, the IUCN ignores these unambiguously positive developments. They also ignore mounting evidence that the potentially vast numbers of American eels located in saltwater habitats may contribute much more to the species’ ability to reproduce than previously recognized. Most studies of eels focus on freshwater habitats, even as a large portion of the species’ overall range is located in saltwater. Some scientists who currently study American eels speculate that that there may be as many as 50-100 million adult eels breeding each year.
Even with soaring prices for sought-after glass eels — which have sold for thousands of dollars per pound as international demand has reached all-time highs — the region’s many eel fishermen have supported efforts by the ASMFC to make sure that eels are not being overfished. Given the relatively small geographic footprint of the eel fishery compared with the vast range of eel habitats, eel fishermen are not endangering the species or its habitat, and fishing does not represent a significant threat to the eel species.
It can credibly be argued that more can be done to protect eels, especially with regard to restoring freshwater habitat that has been lost. But by incorrectly declaring eels to be endangered and at “very high risk” of extinction, the IUCN’s listing asserts that eels are under a level of threat that is simply not supported by the preponderance of the scientific evidence. This inaccurate, sensationalized designation stands in stark contrast to the current realities of the eel stock and the eel fishery.
Julie Keene is an eel harvester from North Trescott and secretary of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association. Tim Larochelle of Woolwich is an eel harvester, commercial fishing boat captain and member of the American Eel Sustainability Association.