Changes in the worldwide sushi industry have turned live baby American eels into a commodity that can fetch more than $2,000 a pound at the dock, but the big demand and big prices have spawned a black market that wildlife officials say is jeopardizing the species. Law enforcement authorities have launched a crackdown on unlicensed eel fishermen and illicit sales along the East Coast, the AP reports. Although not a well-known seafood item like the Maine lobster, wriggling baby eels, or elvers, are a fishery worth many millions of dollars. Elvers often are sold to Asian aquaculture companies to be raised to maturity and have become a linchpin of the sushi supply chain.
The elvers are legally harvested in the US only in Maine and South Carolina. The American eel fishery was typically worth $1 million to $3 million per year until 2011, when Asian and European eel stocks dried up; the value of American eels grew to more than $40 million in 2012 because of demand in China, South Korea, and other Asian countries. Investigators also turned their eyes to poaching in 2011. The Department of Justice, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies are investigating clandestine harvesting and sales. Operation Broken Glass, a reference to the eels' glassy skin, has resulted in 15 guilty pleas for illegal trafficking of about $4 million worth of elvers. (Read more seafood stories.)