Did you know there was, until somewhat recently, an international eel smuggling scheme operating with the picturesque state of Maine at its very heart? I did not, but now I do, and I would very much like Martin Scorsese to make his lowest-stakes movie about it.
American elver prices spiked with a surge demand in 2011, which was followed by mild winter weather in the next two years that led to large numbers of elvers along the Atlantic coast, where they migrate upstream from the ocean to freshwater each spring.
At the time, Maine had fairly lax restrictions on elver catches, despite concerns about declining wild eel populations, making the state fishery an easy target for poachers looking to sell elvers caught elsewhere.
Over the past several years, demand for eels in Asia, and especially in China’s expanding economy, has climbed to unprecedented heights, while wild eel populations in Japan and Europe have declined. As a result, seafood dealers have relied more on American fishermen to satisfy Asian demand for eels, which have never been bred successfully in captivity.
Oh, and also:
Many dealers before 2013 operated on a cash-only basis, making transactions hard to trace and, for the IRS, difficult to tax. Many elver buyers openly carried firearms on their hips to discourage anyone from trying to take bags of high-denomination bills that they kept handy to pay fishermen.
For more on this utterly wild slice of life, check out this 2013 Buzzfeed story.
Most elver fishers in Maine made bank off this lucky break completely legitimately. But, as things are wont to do when there’s massive amounts of money on the table, it got a little out of hand. The Bangor Daily News says 12 men across three states have pled guilty to related federal charges. Just goes to show you that almost anything can be a criminal enterprise, if you put your mind to it. That is, until the feds catch you, at which point you become a cautionary tale.
For instance, one man who was recently sentenced, received no jail time, but was handed probation—including nine months home confinement—fines and restitution as well as being banned from fishing. Asked for comment afterward, he told a reporter: “Don’t poach eels.”
Well, you heard him.