Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

$2,000 a pound — for baby eels?!

A handful of elvers, or baby eels. AP Photo.

From the Associated Press:

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Tiny translucent elvers — alien-looking baby eels the size of toothpicks, with big black eyes and spines — are mysterious creatures, floating thousands of miles from their birthplace in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean before ending up each spring in Maine’s rivers and streams.
But there’s no mystery about what’s drawing hundreds of fishermen to riverbanks to catch the creatures during the two-month fishing season. The price of the eels has skyrocketed to unparalleled levels, with catches bringing up to $2,000 a pound.
A worldwide shortage of the prized dinner fare, imported in infancy from Maine to Asia to be raised in farm ponds, has buyers paying top dollar for the baby American eels. A pound of eels should be worth around $30,000 on the open market once grown to market size, according to one dealer.
Elver prices go up and down all the time, but nobody’s seen them shoot up the way they have over the past two seasons. Last year, at $891 per pound, elvers became Maine’s fourth most-valuable wild fishery, worth more than well-known traditional fisheries such as groundfish, shrimp and scallops.
With this year’s astronomical prices, fishermen and dealers are on edge about poachers, fishermen’s safety, the secrecy of fishing spots and unwanted publicity. On top of all that, there’s a move to have the eels protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Pre-season rumors had the price starting at $2,000 a pound, said longtime fisherman Bruce Steeves of Raymond, as he prepared his nets on a southern Maine river for a night of eel fishing on the season’s opening day, March 22.
“And there’s a prediction it’ll go up from that. At $2,500 a pound, that’s almost $1 per elver,” Steeves said. “This is almost like liquid gold.”
Steeves, like most elver fishermen, swings his hand-held “dip net” — something like a butterfly net with fine mesh — through the water for hours, standing on the riverbank as the tide comes in to capture the eels as they swim upstream. He also works another fine-mesh net shaped like a big funnel and set in the river, catching more of the eels as they ride in with the tide.
Steeves works when the tides are coming in, meaning he’s as likely to be working at 3 in the morning as 3 in the afternoon. He says fishermen typically might harvest a half pound to 2 pounds a day.
There are records of a commercial elver fishery in the U.S. dating back to at least the 1880s, but nowadays only two states allow it.
South Carolina allows fishing on just the Cooper River, and issues only 10 permits annually, seven of which are held by Mainers this year, said Allan Hazel of the state Division of Natural Resources. Hazel’s getting calls this year from people in Korea, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere, seeking to get in touch with fishermen and elver dealers.
But Maine is the elver breadbasket, so to speak, with 407 license holders who fish 525 nets in streams and rivers along the state’s long ragged coast, working with the tides night and day.
Steeves, 56, catches lobsters from June until October, fishes for bait fish from October through the winter, and catches elvers this time of year.
He remembers the late 1990s, when the price shot up to more $200 a pound, creating a gold rush mentality that had fishermen competing for and even duking it out over prime fishing spots. In the peak year, more than 2,300 people held licenses, fishing nearly 6,000 nets.
But the price tumbled to under $30 a pound in the early 2000s, making it hardly worth fishing for them. In 2001, the fishery was worth a piddling $40,000.
Prices yo-yoed in recent years before soaring to last year’s eye-popping levels because of an elver shortage in Europe and Japan, said Mitchell Feigenbaum, owner of South Shore Trading Co., which has an elver buying station in Portland. Fishermen last year harvested about 8,500 pounds at an average of $891 a pound — for a total value of $7.6 million.
With this year’s catch bringing even higher prices, some fishermen staked out key fishing spots weeks ahead of time. Asian buyers have been showing up at some rivers in the dead of night, paying cash for elvers on the spot.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement officers have seen a dramatic increase in illegal activity and have issued summonses coast-wide for illegal fishing, even before the season started. Just last week, Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed emergency legislation that levies $2,000 fines and license suspensions for illegal elver fishing or tampering with other people’s gear.
Maine Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot isn’t surprised people are taking risks for a shot at the lucrative eels.
“At that price, people are going to take the chance to do it illegally and sell them because it’s big money,” Talbot said.
After Steeves harvests the creatures, he puts them in a bucket and takes them to a buyer on the Portland waterfront who strains the writhing catch to remove debris and dead eels, squeezes out the water and weighs the catch. The eels are then dumped into a holding tank of water before they’re packed into Styrofoam boxes and put on planes destined for buyers in China and elsewhere in Asia, where they will be grown to market size in farm ponds.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is now reviewing whether to list the eels as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A 2007 review found that federal protection wasn’t warranted.
Steeves has never eaten eel, but he’s been told they’re delicious. Once grown, the eels are sold for unagi kabayaki, a grilled eel dish.
“They must really love them over there to pay what they pay for them,” he said. “It’s funny how they’ll pay for things expensive over there and over here we laugh at this stuff.”
Paul Firminger, manager for South Shore Trading’s Portland operation, said the eels have mild and tender white meat, no bones to speak of and skin that peels off easily.
“It’s like a cross between chicken and mackerel,” he said.

Wow! A 14-pound, 12-ounce largemouth!

From the Associated Press:

POTEAU, Okla. (AP) — A Poteau man is Oklahoma’s new record holder for a largemouth bass.
Angler Benny Williams Jr. was on a camping trip Friday near Cedar Lake in southeast Oklahoma when he caught the fish, which weighed 14 pounds and 12.3 ounces, and was 26 inches long. The previous state record of 14 pounds and 11.52 ounces has been held since 1999.
Gene Gilliland of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation told KJRH-TV that Cedar Lake has produced several fish that weigh in the double digits in the past five years.
Anglers who believe they may have hooked a record fish must weigh it on an Oklahoma State Department of Agriculture certified scale, and a Wildlife Department employee must verify the weight.

Ohio River anglers are being surveyed

You hear it all the time when you’re fishing: “Catchin’ anything?”

At least now your answers will be official. From the Associated Press:

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Starting Sunday, wildlife officials in three states began  surveying anglers about what they’re catching in the Ohio River.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources will continue that survey through Oct. 20.
Anglers will be asked to take five minutes to fill out the form, which will ask about the types and numbers of fish they’ve caught.
It will also ask about their residency, and about overall fishing habits and experiences.
The survey will provide information to help the states better manage the fishery and improve fishing opportunities.

More on this after I’ve had a chance to talk with DNR fisheries officials.

Bass virus shows up in W.Va.


From the Associated Press:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Division of Natural Resources say recent samples of fish have revealed the presence of largemouth bass virus in four West Virginia lakes.
Assistant wildlife resources chief Bret Preston says the virus was found at East Lynn Lake in Wayne County, North Bend Lake in Ritchie County, Stonewall Jackson Lake in Lewis County, and Sutton Lake in Braxton County.
Preston says the virus hasn’t been linked to human health issues.
The DNR says bass populations infected with the virus have experienced summer die-offs, depressed growth and less than optimal health conditions.
To minimize the spread of the virus, the DNR encourages fishermen to avoid transferring live fish or water between water bodies, and properly clean and maintain all boats, live wells and tackle.

A fishing ban with no teeth

If you’re going to ban something, wouldn’t it seem like a good idea to tell people what the penalties would be for defying the ban?

Apparently the  U.S. government doesn’t grasp that concept. Three years ago the feds outlawed fishing in three U.S.-controlled areas of the Pacific Ocean, but have never put penalties in place to enforce the ban.

The story, from the Associated Press:

HONOLULU (AP) — An environmental group has petitioned the federal government to outline what fines or other penalties it will impose on companies that fish within three marine national monuments in the Pacific.
All commercial fishing was banned in the areas — which lie around Rose Atoll near American Samoa, the Marianas Trench near Saipan, and remote Pacific islands including Palmyra Atoll — when President George W. Bush created the monuments more than three years ago.
The Marine Conservation Institute, a Bellevue, Wash.-based group, said the government’s failure to draft rules explaining what kind of penalty it will impose for a violation is holding up its ability to enforce the ban.
The organization last week petitioned the two co-managers of the monuments, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to create such rules.
Fishermen or their boats could harm unique ecosystems, the petition said, such as when a fishing vessel sank and damaged coral at Kingman Reef near Palmyra in 2007, or when fishing boat ran aground and spilled 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel at Rose Atoll in 1993.
Nesting sea turtles and the world’s largest population of giant clams are at risk, the petition said.
William Chandler, the institute’s vice president for government affairs, said the group has been advocating for the regulations for years but were told they were under consideration and in the works.
“This is not supposed to be a three-year or four-year process. In one more year we’ll hit the four-year mark,” Chandler said. “People need to know these places don’t have the full panoply of legal protections that they could and that they’re supposed to.”
Wende Goo, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the agency is reviewing the petition.
Barry Stieglitz, refuge supervisor at the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuges, said he shares the institute’s “frustration.” But he said his agency has gained responsibilities without winning more funds to help fulfill them.
“The federal fiscal situation is such that we haven’t received any additional resources with which to work on implementing the marine national monument,” he said.
The agency would need to assign someone full-time to develop the rules, but people who could be given the job are focused on existing projects like getting rid of rats at Palmyra Atoll, he said.
Lesli Bales-Sherrod, a spokeswoman for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, said there have been cases of commercial fishing in the monuments since 2009 when they were created and commercial fishing was banned.
NOAA enforces the prohibition with outreach, education and verbal warnings, as is the case with NOAA’s enforcement of many new regulations, she said.
Lt. Gene Maestas, 14th Coast Guard District spokesman, said the Coast Guard monitors ships in the monument and patrols the area with planes and ships.
The Coast Guard can cite U.S. flagged commercial vessels for fishing in the monuments, but it’s up to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement to prosecute the citations.
Regulations banning commercial fishing went into effect quickly at the first marine monument Bush established, the Papahanaumokuakea monument northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
Stieglitz said that’s because officials had been working on the regulations already in anticipation the government would create a national marine sanctuary there. The rules were already drafted and only needed to be published when Bush issued a proclamation establishing a marine monument there in 2006.
Commercial fishing regulations must be created from scratch for the three monuments Bush established in 2009.

Manchin to feds: Leave hunting, fishing alone!

Former West Virginia governor and current U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has put the National Park Service on notice.

In a letter to NPS director Jon Jarvis, Manchin asked that federal officials put in writing that the proposed High Allegheny National Park and Preserve continue to allow hunting and trapping within its boundaries. Manchin also demanded that stockings of non-native rainbow and brown trout be allowed to continue, that small timber cuts be allowed to create wildlife clearings, and that the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources remain the agency primarily responsible for fish and wildlife management on park grounds.

Manchin said in the letter he was less than pleased with answers he’d received from Park Service officials when he started asking questions about those issues. He added that he would pull his support for the park if his and his constituents’ hunting-, fishing- and trapping-related requests weren’t met.

The text of the letter can be found here.

Hat tip: Chris Lawrence at West Virginia MetroNews.



Jon Jarvis

Carp, the other white meat

Common carp (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

For more than 120 years, carp introduced by well-intentioned state agencies have gone virtually unmolested in United States waters. Maybe that’s about to change. From the Associated Press:

WABASHA, Minn. (AP) — An Australian company that processes carp will open its first U.S. facility in Wabasha Friday.
Carp may not be popular on menus in the U.S., but it’s widely eaten in Eastern Europe and Asia. Keith Bell of K & C Fisheries says in China, the carp is steamed with vegetables for the main meal. In Poland, Bell says the fish is canned with vegetables or is baked for Christmas dinner.
Bell and his wife, Cate, began exploring the upper Mississippi River as a place to grow their business after several years of drought in Australia made it difficult to harvest carp there.
Minnesota Public Radio News reports the common carp is native to Europe and Asia and was introduced in the Midwest as a game fish in the 1880s.

434,000 trout — wasted

I understand why the trout had to be destroyed, but I mourn the loss of so much angling potential. From the Associated Press:

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is disposing of 434,000 lake trout from a Bethel fish hatchery because of fears that stocking them in the Great Lakes could spread the invasive algae known as “rock snot.”
Officials tried to find alternative locations where the 4-inch fingerlings could be stocked into waters already contaminated with the algae, known more formally as didymo, including lakes in Vermont and New Hampshire, but none could be found, said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Terri Edwards.
“Everyone at the hatchery is upset. This is not the choice that we wanted to make,” she said. “We did not want to take the risk of introducing didymo into any environment.”
The decision to destroy the fish was made by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast regional director, Wendi Weber, who determined they could not be safely stocked in lakes Erie and Ontario — where they were supposed to be released — without posing a risk that didymo could be transported to those bodies of water.
Federal official asked counterparts in states across the Northeast and around the Great Lakes for a lake that had already been contaminated with didymo where the fish could be released.
“In the end, we were not able to place them,” Edwards said.
The fish are being taken out of their tanks and dumped into deep pits where they are covered with lime and buried. They pose no public health threat, Edwards said.
Didymo is believed to be transported by anglers moving from one body of water to another. It poses no threat to humans but can overwhelm cold water lakes and streams, threatening aquatic insect and fish populations by smothering food sources.
The hatchery is located on the banks of the White River, which is known to contain didymo, and was inundated by contaminated river water during flooding in August caused by Tropical Storm Irene.
Last month, about 3,000 larger Atlantic salmon breeding stock from the hatchery were cleaned and donated to several Native American tribes. Some tribes used them as part of religious rituals.
Once the lake trout have been removed from the hatchery, the tanks will be scrubbed and disinfected to be sure no threat of didymo remains. The water in the hatchery’s tanks comes from wells.
The fish originally were raised to be stocked in lakes Ontario and Erie next year. While the fish will be missed, over time their absence isn’t expected to hold back the stocking programs for the Great Lakes, Edwards said.
In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service stocked more than 4 million lake trout in the Great Lakes.
It’s unclear how long the Bethel hatchery will be out of service or what its role will be once repairs have been completed. In addition to disinfecting the tanks, other repairs from Irene damage are also being carried out.
The loss of the Bethel hatchery comes as the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, Pa., goes online after being out of service for several years. The Warren hatchery, originally established to produce rainbow, brook and brown trout for northwestern Pennsylvania streams, now is intended to produce lake trout for restoration in lake Erie and Ontario.

Want to play on public hunting land? Pay toll!

For decades, public lands paid for by hunting- and fishing-license money have been open for everyone’s use, free of charge.

Virginia state officials are changing that. Owners of hunting and fishing licenses will still get in free, but other folks will have to pay. From the Associated Press:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will begin charging a limited $4 fee at its wildlife management areas and public fishing lakes starting Jan. 1.
The access fee will apply to visitors who do not possess a valid hunting, freshwater fishing or trapping license or a current state boat registration.
The department owns more than 201,000 acres and 35 public fishing lakes statewide. Most of the land and lakes were purchased primarily through revenue generated by those licenses. Those license-holders also support the upkeep of department-maintained roads, parking areas, kiosks and the management of those properties.
The access fee will be required for bird watchers, horseback riders and others outdoor lovers over 17 who use the department’s holdings.
The annual access permit will be $23.

Interesting. Unless I miss my guess, Virginia’s action will start a trend.

Some answers on that national park issue

For this week’s Gazette-Mail column, I went to Judy Rodd, the principal source for the push to create a national park and preserve in West Virginia’s northeastern highlands. Judy was able to answer some of the existing questions, but not all. Here’s the column.

Last week, when news broke that much of West Virginia’s northern Allegheny Highlands might be considered for national park and preserve status, sportsmen raised a ton of questions:
How big would the park be? Would hunting be outlawed? Would trout stockings be curtailed? Who would manage the fish and wildlife? And what would become of trapping, ramp digging and ginseng hunting?
We have answers now for at least some of those questions. Earlier this week, I spoke with Judy Rodd, a spokeswoman for Friends of High Allegheny National Park and Preserve, who clarified some of the murkier points.
The preserve, as currently envisioned, would be pretty darned big – roughly 750,000 acres.
Rodd said it would start at Cathedral State Park in Preston County and extend southward to Cass in Pocahontas County. Its western boundary would start at Shavers Mountain near Elkins and would extend eastward to include current units of the George Washington National Forest in Hardy and Hampshire counties.
“All the lands that would be included in the preserve would be lands that are current state parks or are part of the Monongahela and George Washington national forests,” Rodd explained. “No private lands would need to be purchased.”
She added that only a portion of the land would be considered a full-fledged national park.
“The main units of the national park portion would include Cathedral, Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley state parks, and some portion of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area,” she said.
“The Park Service folks have said units of the park could be spread apart like that. The rest of the land in the Allegheny Highlands – the vast majority of the land under consideration – would be in preserve status, where hunting and fishing would be encouraged.”
Rodd said she wasn’t sure if the Park Service would allow trapping on the preserve. However, a subsequent Internet search of several preserves’ websites showed that trapping is allowed on most of them.
The question of ginseng hunting caught Rodd by surprise; she said she “would have to talk the Park Service about that.” As to ramp digging, she harbored a rather strong opinion: “I dig them too, so naturally I would want [that] to be allowed.”
One of the more ticklish questions surrounding the preserve concept would be whether the state Division of Natural Resources or the National Park Service would have primary control of fishing-related issues.
In the New River Gorge National River, for example, DNR officials manage fisheries as they see fit. One sticking point has arisen, though. Park Service officials several years ago asked that non-native fish – rainbow and brown trout, specifically – not be stocked within the park’s boundaries. Stockings continue to this day.
In the state’s mountain highlands, trout fishing is a big issue. Most of the state’s most popular stocked-trout streams and rivers are in the preserve area, and most of the fish stocked are rainbows and browns. Rodd said she didn’t know whether DNR or Park Service policies would prevail.
“That’s too technical an issue for me,” she said.
Rodd said provisions to address any or all of sportsmen’s concerns could be written into legislation that would establish the park.
“That’s a long way off, though,” she said. “The [upcoming] study is called a reconnaissance study. If it finds that the area is unique enough to be included in the national park system, a resource study would follow. And then there would be a period of time to write the legislation and get it passed. Park and preserve status is still years away.”