As baby eel fishermen in Maine prepare for the start of the 2020 fishing season later this month, harvesters and dealers are concerned the global coronavirus outbreak could reduce demand, and therefore prices, for their catch.
The vast majority of baby eels, also known as glass eels or elvers, that are caught in Maine are shipped live to eastern Asia, with most going to China, where they are grown to market size in aquaculture ponds, and then to Japan for that country’s robust consumer seafood market.
But measures China and neighboring countries have taken to control the spread of the infection are constraining the Asian seafood trade, on which Maine’s elver fishery almost exclusively depends.
Restrictions on live seafood shipments in and out of China and quarantines that constrain transportation and commerce within the country could result in fewer available buyers for eels, a species that has generated more than $168 million for Maine fishermen over the past nine years. The disease also has spread to South Korea and Japan, where similar quarantines and transportation restrictions would sharply reduce the consumption of eel and other imported foods.
“We have gotten word that the price is not looking good,” the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association wrote last month on its Facebook page, citing the impact of the disease in China, where at one point officials thought the outbreak had started at a seafood market in the city of Wuhan. “As far as we know the price is going to be 25 percent lower than last year.”
Maine elver fishermen were paid an average of $2,093 per pound for their catch in 2019, according to the state Department of Marine Resources. There are approximately 1,000 licensed elver fishermen in the state, with varying individual catch quotas that range from a few pounds to more than 50 pounds. Overall, Maine fishermen caught more than $20 million worth of elvers last year.
Mitchell Feigenbaum, an elver buyer and exporter who also is looking to establish eel aquaculture operations in the U.S. and Canada, said that concerns about coronavirus’ effect on the eel market have sent prices tumbling. As of Wednesday, he said, the going price for elvers being caught in the Caribbean is roughly $800 per pound, half of what it was on opening day of Maine’s 2019 elver season.
“The emergence of the coronavirus has affected the glass eel market significantly,” Feigenbaum said. “When the epidemic was first reported, we saw a big drop in the price of eels across the board.”
Last week, the Chinese government banned the purchase, sale and consumption of terrestrial wildlife to try to prevent further spread of the disease, according to Business Insider.
While the ban doesn’t apply to aquatic animals, tight restrictions on travel and shipping in China are having a significant impact on the country’s economy.
With shipments to China effectively halted, seafood producers in Vietnam and Australia have had difficulty finding customers. And Chinese exporters are experiencing some of the same difficulty. Last month, SeafoodSource reported that Indonesia was moving to restrict seafood imports from China to help prevent the spread of coronavirus to that country.
There have been reports that the spread of the disease is slowing in China, which could help to ease restrictions there, but if the number of confirmed cases in Japan continue to grow, there could be continuing hurdles to getting Maine eels into the consumer seafood market. Already, there is talk of postponing this year’s summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“Japan is by far the largest consumer of processed eels in the world, and the Chinese are the largest processors,” Feigenbaum said. “So even as life returns to normal in China, the farmers are looking at the situation in Japan when they make business decisions.”
Despite the price and logistical distribution challenges, Feigenbaum said, there should be a consistent market for Maine elvers during the 2020 fishing season, which starts March 22 and continues through early June or until fishermen reach the statewide catch quota of 9,688 pounds. He said he and his business partners are “committed” to buying baby eels in Maine this year.
Global demand for baby eels caught in Maine has soared since 2011 as a result of a European ban on eel exports, tsunami-caused devastation to Japan’s eel supply and increasing consumer demand in China. Prior to that year, annual average prices paid to fishermen ranged from $25 to $350 per pound, but from 2011 onward annual averages have ranged from $875 to more than $2,300 per pound.
Maine’s elver fishery now ranks second in value in the state behind the $480 million lobster fishery, which also could see exports to China drop if that country’s coronavirus precautions persist. Lobster catches in Maine are seasonal, with most shipments overseas occurring in fall and early winter.
Maine seafood distributors have shipped less lobster to China in the past couple of years as a trade dispute has prompted China to impose steep tariffs on the importation of U.S. goods. After extensive negotiations, China agreed in January to ease trade restrictions on U.S. lobster and other food products.
Prior to the trade dispute, exports to China helped boost Maine’s lobster industry for more than a decade, but the volatility of trade between the two countries has prompted some Maine lobster industry representatives to focus more on further developing the domestic market, rather than on increasing sales overseas.