SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Maine Public] By NORA FLAHERTY - May 01, 2018
If you’ve ever read a story in the news about elver fishing season, you’ve probably seen some variation of this line: “Maine’s the only state in the U.S. with a significant fishery for elvers.”
Maybe you thought that’s because elvers don’t exist in large numbers outside of Maine — that would be a reasonable assumption. But the real reason is somewhat more complicated.
Let’s start at the beginning, in the Sargasso Sea. Although it sounds romantic, the Sargasso Sea is actually just an area of the North Atlantic that’s full of Sargassum, a kind of seaweed that floats in the ocean rather than existing close to land.
It’s a unique marine environment, and the Sargasso Sea provides a cozy place for many species to spawn or start out life, including baby turtles and some types of fish.
It’s also where the life cycle of the American eel both begins and ends. They’re born there, and after a few decades — eels are incredibly long-lived animals — they swim back in, spawn and die.
Outside of that, eels’ life cycle isn’t that well understood, but we know they start out there as tiny leptocephali, or larvae, which look like nothing more than a transparent willow leaf.
For the first few months of their lives, they float about with the ocean currents and are eventually carried by the Gulf Stream north along the continental shelf of the eastern U.S. Then, somehow — scientists don’t know quite how — they find their way out of the Gulf Stream and into coastal and fresh waters.
At this point, they’re about a year old and looking more eel-like, but still transparent. They’re now in the elver, or “glass eel,” stage, and as University of Maine marine biologist James McCleave puts it, they get “spit out everywhere” along the Atlantic Coast. Then they more or less stay put in estuaries, rivers and lakes near the coast for decades, getting bigger, fatter and more silvery.
It’s during their first year in our water bodies that American eels are fished as elvers.
Valuable Baby Eels
The typical news story we were talking about before includes another stock line, something like, “Maine fishermen harvest the valuable baby eels from rivers and streams so they can be sold as seed stock to Asian aquaculture companies.”
But why are they worth so much? Eels are a big deal in Asian cuisine, and as it has become more popular at sushi places the world over, the demand for them has exploded.
Unagi is made from eels that are a couple years old when they’re killed, and there’s a huge Asian aquaculture industry that provides those. But that industry hasn’t been able to figure out a scalable way to breed eels — which turn out mostly male when they’re bred in captivity — so they need to be caught young.
Historically, Japanese and European eels have fed that market, and Asian consumers prefer their taste. But those eels’ populations have declined drastically — it’s estimated European eel and Japanese eel populations have declined by 90 percent since the ’80s. This pushed prices up somewhat on American eel, but then in 2010, things really started to get exciting.
That’s when the European Union banned all exports of European eel. (European eels are now listed as critically endangered, and Japanese eels endangered.)
And then, in March 2011, a massive earthquake hit Japan near Tokyo, and the tsunami it caused wiped out huge stockpiles of eels being cultivated in aquaculture operations. Over that year and the next two, elver prices were way up, skyrocketing from $185 per pound in 2010 to $1,868 on average in 2012, with a spike up to $2,600 near the end of the season.
They haven’t been below $800 since, and they’ve mostly been much higher. As this year’s elver season goes on, they’re at some of the highest prices they’ve ever been: an average of well over $2,000 per pound.
While Maine is the only state with a commercial elver quota, it’s also legal to fish elvers in South Carolina and sell them. But a very small number of people do it, and the volume of elvers they catch is very small.
So, that’s why you read that Maine is the only state with a “significant” elver fishery.
People in the Atlantic states have always fished for eels. Adult (yellow or silver) eels are eaten or used for bait, and they’re a traditional part of the diet for tribes in the area. It was a confluence of events that led to elvers becoming a major commercial fishery.
In Maine, the story starts in the 1970s, at a time when sushi was becoming popular in the western world. At that time, according to a National Geographic article on the elver trade, a Japanese fisheries attache got in touch with the state Department of Natural Resources, wondering if Maine had enough baby eels to start a commercial fishery.
The job of answering that question fell to William Sheldon, a Maine Department of Marine Resources employee with a degree in wildlife management. He was the right guy for the job. Once Sheldon determined there were indeed elvers aplenty in Maine’s rivers, estuaries and streams, he figured out techniques for elver fishing and holding, and for shipping the little eels to Japan. (That isn’t where his story ends, by the way.)
Not much came of it immediately, but the idea had been born, and according to Pat Keliher, the commissioner of DMR, “there were several pioneering fishermen who started to catch baby eels to send to markets overseas.”
He says in the ’80s, elvers, which were fished “in darkness in the middle of the night,” were “kind of a hidden little fishery” that made a few people a fair amount of money but weren’t at the very top of fisheries officials’ list of things to worry about.
In the ’80s, concerns about American eel populations overall drove the DMR to get involved and begin regulating the fishery. And by the ’90s, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, which manages fisheries along the Atlantic coast, started to get involved.
In 1999, it came out with its first management plan for the American eel, basically acknowledging that there were serious concerns about eels becoming endangered, looking at why and setting up ways for states to keep track of eel populations and the effects of fishing and other dangers — like turbines at power dams.
At this point, many states had already restricted eel fishing for those same reasons, and there were only a few states that allowed elvers to be fished (this was in the ‘90s, when the price of elvers wasn’t what it would one day become.)
Maine was way ahead of other states at this point in terms of both having a vibrant commercial elver fishery and in regulating it, although poaching would continue to be a major problem for a long time. So when the time came to set quotas on eel fisheries, Maine was the only state to get one for elvers.
Why did Maine get the privilege of having an amazingly lucrative fishery, and the other states didn’t get to? Here’s the thing: They mostly didn’t want to.
Part of this is because, while elvers were always worth more per pound than adult eels, prices for them didn’t really enter the stratosphere until well after the quotas were set. The prices were also all over the place, fluctuating wildly, while fisheries for adult eels were much more consistent. It wasn’t as much money, but it could be counted on as part of a fisherman’s income, year in, year out.
In some states, eels also aren’t as plentiful because dams prevent their passage into local rivers — by killing them. In contrast, Maine’s rivers are relatively open. In the words of Darrel Young, an elver fisherman and dealer out of Ellsworth and the co-founder of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, “Maine is big. We’ve got 3,500 miles of shore frontage, there’s over 250 rivers, there’s 6,000 streams, there’s an ungodly amount of brooks we don’t even fish … there’s just a phenomenal amount of glass eels running.”
Elver fishing is also very hard work, done after dark in water that’s sometimes not that far above freezing. One elver fisherman I spoke to, Justin Jordan, said it’s not easy work — standing on a steep, slippery bank, balancing buckets, lanterns and nets and “swinging a fine mesh net through the water — it’s like a trash bag on the end of a pole.”
Moreover, even if the high prices on elvers did tempt states to want to get involved, it could be an expensive hassle.
The ASMFC’s rules require states that want a quota on elvers to show that they’ve been making efforts toward “stock enhancement,” like habitat restoration projects or modifying dams so eels can pass through them. They would also have to have a monitoring program to make sure the stock enhancement is working and that the quota’s not exceeded. And they’d have to begin a life cycle survey on at least one population of the state’s eels.
All of this is expensive. DMR Commissioner Keliher says the life cycle study alone costs Maine about $100,000 a year. Given the volatility of the market, he says, “this is a requirement that a lot of states look at and say, ‘I’m not sure I want to invest the money if we’re not going to have a lot of quota, and it’s not a lot of economic value back to the state.’”
Because if there’s not much of a quota, no matter how valuable a fish by pound, it’s not going to bring in that much money. Elvers are by far the most valuable fish, by pound, in Maine. But the value of the whole fishery in 2017 was only 2.1 percent of the total landings revenue that year.
Both European and Asian eels are endangered, and while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reviewed the American eel twice — in 2007 and again in 2015 — it has decided both times not to list it as threatened or endangered.
In its statement in 2015, the service said while American eels still “face local mortality from harvest and hydroelectric facilities, this is not threatening the overall species.” It pointed to changes that have been made in hydroelectric dams, and to harvest quotas for both elvers and adult eels, and said the service is working with people throughout eels’ range to make sure it, and other migratory species, stay stable.
Some other organizations don’t agree, including the seafood advisory list Seafood Watch, which says the all kinds of eel — including American eel — rank “among the worst seafood choices from an environmental perspective.” Other environmental and conservation organizations say the same.
The fact is, it’s very hard to be certain about eels’ status, because they have such a long and complicated life cycle. DMR Commissioner Keliher says he’s fairly comfortable with the science, and that if the state and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission are erring on the side of caution, that’s good for the long-term health of the fishery.
Meanwhile, fishermen chafe a bit at the quotas — as they often do. Ellsworth fisherman Young says he gets that it’s regulators’ job to make sure the population’s not overfished.
“But what is the population? They don’t have any idea,” he says.
Young says fishermen can see that there are plenty of eels in the water. As some say the population is plummeting, others say it’s depleted but stable and still others say, at least in Maine, it seems just fine.
So what’s in the future? It’s possible that American eel prices will continue to rise due to rising demand for unagi. It’s also theoretically possible that the species will become more threatened and fisheries managers will decide to protect them more than they are now, which could drive up the price further or eliminate the legal fishery altogether.
We do know that the ASMFC, in 2017, found that the stock “remains depleted,” but seems relatively stable by most measures. Given this — and the success that Maine has had dealing with poaching — it has suggested in its latest addendum to the fishery management plan that the quota either remain the same or revert to its pre-2014 level of 11,749 lbs.
The addendum is in its public comment period and is expected to be adopted in August of this year. Check out ASMFC.org for a meeting schedule.
While it’s unclear what’s in the future for the American eel, elvers or the fishery, right now fishermen in Maine are in the middle of one of the best seasons they’ve had in years. The catch is good, with the DMR reporting that the quota will likely be met for the first time in a few years, and at about $2,500 a pound, they’re getting the highest price they’ve ever gotten
Recycling Oyster Shells Improves Water Quality, Oyster Population
SEAFOODNEWS.COM [VOA NEWS] by Faiza Elmasry - May 01, 2018
It’s another busy day for Tony Price, who has a list of around two dozen restaurants and other seafood businesses to visit, to pick up discarded oyster shells.
Fast and energetic, he moves barrels of smelly shells from restaurants’ back storage areas to his truck. “We do seven pickups a week, plus events on weekends. I’d say we’re getting somewhere between 500 and even 800 bushels a week,” he says.
That’s the beginning of a recycling process, a journey for the oyster shell to return to the water.
Price is the operation manager with Shell Recycling Alliance, a program run by the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Last year, the program collected 33,400 bushels of oyster shells from restaurants all around the Chesapeake Bay area. Every half shell collected becomes a new home for around 10 baby oysters.
On the menu
Oysters have been a popular item on the menu of Mike’s Crab House since 1958.
The famous seafood restaurant, in Riva, Maryland, is one of more than 330 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. that now recycle their oyster shells.
Tony Piera says he and Mike's other owners joined the program four years ago.
“It’s a win-win for us. It’s a win-win for the environment,” he explains. “Before we did it, the trash would come and get them. Now, the Oyster Recovery comes two days a week, picks them up.”
Mike’s Crab House is one of the top ten contributors to the program this year, with more 822 bushels of recycled oyster shells in 2017.
“I think I’m getting more customers here because they know we recycle here," Piera says. "They know it’s good for the environment, the Chesapeake Bay.”
Saving oysters, saving the bay
The Oyster Recovery Partnership began in 2010 with 22 restaurants. Spokeswoman Karis King says the program has been well received and is expanding.
“We continue to grow and expand from us basically knocking on doors, trying to get people involved,” she adds. “It’s turned out into getting requests every single day, ‘How do we become part of this program?’ ‘I’m really excited about the program.’ ‘I want to do my part.’ ‘I want to be sustainable.’”
The recycling program offers incentives to encourage more restaurants to join. “In Maryland, tax credits that restaurants can claim based on how many bushels they recycle. We also provide them with support, restaurant training to talk to the servers about what the program is and why it’s important.”
Multi-step recycling process
Done with his day's rounds, Tony Price heads to a facility where the first phase of the process - cleaning the shells - begins.
“The shell is taken down here, it’s aged, it sits for about a year. It dries out, sun, wind, rain,” he explains. “(It) kind of decomposes a little all the tissue that’s left. Behind me is the shell washer. There are jets of a high pressure water from a pressure water system tumbles the shells, just give it a nice cleaning. So, it comes out brilliant white as opposed to the stuff on the other side is the raw shell. It’s a little bit grayer.”
Then, the shells go to the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Oyster Hatchery for further processing.
Hatchery manager, Stephanie Alexander, says her team gets tiny baby oysters, called spat, ready to be attached to the clean oyster shells. “We get the adult oysters, we spawn them and create the babies. Then, we grow those baby oysters for two to three weeks. Then they mature and we attach them to the shell to become spat on shell.”
Now firmly attached to the recycled natural shells, the spat are put back in the Chesapeake Bay. Here, they will grow and flourish, increasing the oyster population.
Alexander says new generations of oysters are crucially important for the health of the bay. They filter the water.
“That kind of makes them the bay’s kidneys,” she explains. “The cleaner water you have, the more sunlight can penetrate, the more grasses you end up having, which results in nursery area for fish and crabs when they are small and juvenile so they don’t get eaten. They also are spawning and reproducing, adding to the population. They (oyster shells) create habitat for many, many creatures. They are kind of the coral reefs of the bay.”
The success of the Recycling Shell Alliance program encourages more restaurants to join. That’s good for the bay and for people who love to eat oysters.
Researchers Conduct First Land-use Study of Future Food Systems Focusing on Aquaculture
SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Seafood News] by Susan Chambers - May 1, 2018
A new study by California researchers shows land-based aquaculture could help solve protein problems and terrestrial biodiversity in the future.
To satisfy the protein demands of an anticipated nearly 10 billion people by 2050, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and researchers around the world estimate current animal production will need to grow by an average of 52 percent. Meeting this need without pushing the environment to the brink will be critical.
New evidence shows seafood from aquaculture can help feed the future global population while substantially reducing one of the biggest environmental impacts of meat production -- land use -- without requiring people to entirely abandon meat as a food source.
A new study from UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) found the amount of cropland required to support future protein needs with more farmed aquatic animals would be significantly smaller than if terrestrial livestock production met those needs. This research is the first land-use analysis of future food systems to focus on aquaculture, the world's fastest-growing food sector, and helps reveal its potential role in conservation and food security.
"While aquaculture can add some pressure because -- ultimately -- it is a food production system, our study demonstrates the relative amount is minuscule compared to terrestrially farmed animals," lead author Halley Froehlich, a postdoctoral researcher at NCEAS, said in a press release. "Aquaculture is not going to be the main strain on future crop feed and land use. It is -- and will likely continue to be -- terrestrial livestock."
Aquaculture production depends on a number of land-based crops for feed, positioning it uniquely at the interface of aquatic and terrestrial food systems. To understand its land-use implications, the researchers examined how much land would be required to grow the seven most common crops used to feed both terrestrial livestock and farmed fish under three scenarios for the year 2050, synthesizing food production data from the FAO and other scientific sources.
The investigators compared a business-as-usual scenario in which terrestrial meat consumption continues to dominate seafood to two scenarios in which aquaculture meets the additional protein demands of the global population in 2050. They found that replacing the added terrestrial production with aquaculture instead could spare between 729 and 747 million land hectares globally; that's an area twice the size of India, the world's seventh biggest country.
These savings, which also consider the substitution of land required for livestock grazing, would occur whether future aquaculture growth is completely marine-based or a mix of marine and freshwater -- the two aquaculture scenarios the investigators assessed to understand a range of possible futures.
Land savings would be achieved because fish and other aquatic animals are extremely efficient at converting feed to biomass for human consumption. For example, a cow requires anywhere from six to 30-plus pounds of feed to gain one pound of biomass, while most farmed fish need just one to two pounds of feed to do the same. This efficiency translates into much less cropland required to grow feed for the fish that people eat.
These results highlight the role that food choices play in the future of biodiversity. Habitat lost and human land use are the biggest threats to that biodiversity.
"The expansion of agriculture across the world is driving most species extinctions and the dramatic loss of ecosystems," co-author Claire Runge, a research scientist at University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway, said in the statement. She also was a postdoctoral researcher at NCEAS at the time the research was conducted. "This is only going to increase into the future. Aquaculture offers one way to reduce some of this pressure on our natural landscapes, wild places and wildlife."
According to Froehlich, the study does not advocate aquaculture as a panacea for sustainable food production. As with any food system, tradeoffs exist. Still, these results build on mounting evidence for the potential of sustainable aquaculture production.
"Aquaculture does not have to be this massive burden on land or in the water, especially if farms are sited strategically and there are incentives for management that move it toward sustainable siting and feed practices," Froehlich said. "The potential is ripe to really do it right."
Co-author Ben Halpern, director of NCEAS and a professor at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, noted the study also provides a clear reason for people to shift their diets away from meat and increase fish consumption to reduce the environmental impacts of their food choices.
"What you eat has impact, but we understand shifting diets can be difficult," Halpern said. "We hope that awareness of how much land can be spared with a fish-rich diet helps individuals make the change. Similarly, we hope our results put more 'fish on the bones' of policy arguments to make more systematic changes."
The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Support for the study came from the Science for Nature and People Partnership, a collaboration of NCEAS, The Nature Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Society.