The Epic Fight Over the Enigmatic Eel

The slippery fish is at the center of a Canadian national debate about economics, conservation and Indigenous rights

The American eel fishery has historically focused on mature eels (as shown here), which are exported around the world. But these days, there’s more money to be made from juveniles. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)
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Lighting the hissing naphtha lamp mounted at the front of his metal canoe, Kerry Prosper prepares for a midsummer eel hunt on Nova Scotia’s Pomquet Harbour. It’s just past sunset, and the conditions are perfect, with warm air gently rolling off the bay and smoothing the water’s surface to glass. Prosper timed tonight’s trip with the new moon; eels get skittish when there’s too much light. Even lightning scares them into hiding.

Pushing off the shore, Prosper stands at the front of the boat, using both the forked metal and blunt wooden ends of a 10-foot-long spear to navigate along the shallows; he’s part gondolier, part kayaker. The bright lamp tints the water an eerie, glowing green as he scours the rocks and sand for an eel’s serpentine silhouette. Spotting one, he slows the boat, steadies the spear’s tines above the surface, and plunges downward.

The impaled eel coils, Medusa-like, around the metal and wood. Prosper pivots and shakes the fish into a plastic crate in the middle of the boat, where it lashes wildly.

Under the light of a headlamp, the adult American eel (Anguilla rostrata) lives up to its snake-like reputation. Around three feet long, it has the diameter and density of industrial fishing rope, its glossy, muscular gray-green body tapering to a sharp-angled dorsal fin and pointed snout. Its tiny pectoral fins and gaping pink mouth are slightly comical, with a cream-colored belly marking it as an adult but not yet ready to spawn.

This ancient fish is prized by Prosper’s band, the Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, which has eaten and used it for materials, medicine and spiritual offerings for millennia. Less glamorous than lobster or salmon—and for decades, worth far less commercially—the eel has long slipped beneath the radars of many large-scale commercial fishermen in Atlantic Canada. But with skyrocketing global demand for eels, that’s quickly changing.

Kerry Prosper of the Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation
Kerry Prosper of the Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation fishes for eels in Pomquet Harbour in northeastern Nova Scotia. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

First Nations leaders, including Prosper, along with some non-native fishermen, say regional eel populations are dropping and allege indecision by Canada’s federal government is putting the fish in jeopardy. But others, including entrepreneurs hungry to feed growing international demand, insist maintaining a well-managed eel fishery is the only way to ensure the species’ survival, as harvesters work to keep a lucrative stock sustainable.

The American eel’s future now depends on a long-awaited government ruling on whether or not to officially list it as a species at risk. A ruling to list could devastate Canada’s estimated $20-million commercial eel fishery, disrupt plans to expand the fishery into land-based aquaculture worth many times more, and contradict two recent rulings south of the border. This is the moment many government scientists live for: the chance to use decades of specialized knowledge to interpret data and shape government policy. But even they’re struggling to understand this elusive fish, which one Canadian expert calls a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

All this has transformed the American eel into an unexpected emblem of profound challenges facing modern fisheries management. From striking a balance between Indigenous rights and commercial demands in determining policy, to the economic illogic of shipping valuable fish overseas for processing and profit by other countries, to the challenge of crafting intelligent fisheries strategy on a backdrop of incomplete scientific data, this fish is at the crux of some of the most important conversations in Canadian fisheries today.

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When I first meet Kerry Prosper, the morning before our nighttime eel hunt, he’s dwarfed by towers of paperwork packed into, onto and around every surface of his desk at the Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation band office. It’s the tableau of a modern bureaucrat, and a tangible reminder of Prosper’s efforts to draw attention to the needs of his community and the colonial injustices inflicted upon it. He’s wearing jeans and a sky-blue T-shirt with the Paqtnkek logo, and has a bundle of keys at his waist. His thick, dark hair, graying at the temples, is pulled back into a long, low ponytail.

Prosper, smiling in the light of his kerosene lantern
Prosper, smiling in the light of his kerosene lantern after eel fishing, is often cited as a leading traditional knowledge holder on American eels. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

Prosper grew up fishing eels with his older brother in Paqtnkek [BUTTON-kek], a community of around 560 people about 20 minutes east of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The name means “by the bay” in Mi’kmaw. Prosper, a former band chief, is often cited as Atlantic Canada’s leading expert on the Mi’kmaq and knowledge holder on the American eel, and he’s certain eels aren’t being well-managed—proof for him that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is putting commercial profits for non-Indigenous fishermen ahead of his nation’s treaty rights. While not suggesting the commercial eel fishery be shut down entirely, Prosper argues that any decision about the future of American eel should include Indigenous rights at its core, not as an afterthought.

Eel, or kat, was a fundamental resource for Prosper’s ancestors. Historically, First Nations have fished eel across Atlantic Canada and all the way up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario. They corralled eels in stone weirs—some dating back 4,000 years—and speared them in shallow water, through ice holes in winter and from boats in summer. The Mi’kmaq ate the fish stewed, baked, smoked or dried. Healers used eel to soothe the sick, applying oil to help with earaches, while craftspeople used eel skins to bind everything from sleds, moccasins and clothing to spears and harpoons.

While eel is no longer a mainstream protein in North America, it was once prized by colonial settlers, particularly Acadians and Quebecois. They copied Indigenous techniques, pushing their skiffs into the night and shining a torch in the water to spear or net eels in enormous quantities, often preferring the delicate, sweet meat pickled.

As the communities coexisted, settlers intensified the fishery as cultural Mi’kmaw eeling declined. In a study Prosper co-published in the early 2000s in collaboration with a local university, he discovered that young adults are far more likely to eat eel at their parents’ and grandparents’ homes than their own. So he started leading spear-making workshops, teaching Paqtnkek youth where to find eels, and how to catch and cook them in an effort to preserve that knowledge.

Prosper sharpens the prongs
Prosper sharpens the prongs of his spear during a break from his eel hunt. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

When Prosper launches his eel-fishing boat, it’s from the sandy, marshy beach of Pomquet Harbour, minutes down the road from the Paqtnkek band office. It was here, 24 years ago, where the arrest and eventual exoneration of Donald Marshall Jr. codified the Mi’kmaw, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy nations’ rights to fish commercially in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

What few Canadians know, says Prosper, is that Marshall was fishing for eel.

In August 1993, Marshall, a member of nearby Cape Breton’s Membertou First Nation, caught and sold 210 kilograms of eel to a local buyer for $787.10. He was charged by DFO with fishing without a license, selling eels without a license, and fishing during a closed season, and his equipment was seized. Membertou, like Paqtnkek, is part of the Mi’kmaw nation, the Maritimes’ largest regional tribal group, and that nation rallied to his defense.

It was a double injustice. Marshall had already served nearly 11 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit (he was later exonerated), and upon his release turned to eeling to make a living. His legal team—including Prosper’s younger brother P. J., who was a law student when the case began—maintained that Peace and Friendship Treaties signed in 1760 and 1761 gave their communities treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather. It took six years for the Supreme Court of Canada to rule, and when it did, it ruled in Marshall’s favor.

“The Marshall [decision] created a real uproar in the commercial fishery,” says Prosper, who, shortly after the ruling, traveled throughout the region to explain it to non-Indigenous fishermen. “This really showed me what people thought about our treaty rights, and how they change when you seem to be impacting their money.” He faced down crowds of angry, worried fishermen.

Prosper navigates Pomquet Harbour with light from a lantern
Prosper navigates Pomquet Harbour with light from a lantern. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

By the mid-1990s, fishermen in the region were reporting shrinking catches, but it was nothing compared to what was happening to other eel species overseas. The Japanese eel population, which had started sliding in the 1970s, had collapsed. European eels were in free fall by the early 2000s. Environmental groups warn the same thing could happen in Canada if the government doesn’t list the American eel as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), a call that must be made by Canada’s entire federal cabinet. A SARA listing would automatically prohibit killing, harming, harassing, possessing, collecting, buying, selling or trading American eel in Canada.

Within a year of listing, DFO would develop a recovery strategy, which could include permits or exemptions for commercial and recreational fishing, Indigenous or otherwise, and other activities affecting the fish. Or—to the dread of commercial fishermen—no exceptions at all.

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Mitchell Feigenbaum sits at an old dinette table, a battered remnant of a country market and restaurant he recently bought on the outskirts of Port Elgin, New Brunswick, and sees the future. In it, his company South Shore Trading, North America’s largest eel buyer and exporter, no longer has to exclusively sell baby eels to China. Feigenbaum, a former lawyer with a shock of coarse white hair, is wearing jean shorts and a red-checkered button-up. He moved here from Philadelphia about 18 years ago, but hasn’t lost his Philly patois or ability to spot a business opportunity. He recently bought this building, where he eventually hopes to welcome tour buses packed with Japanese tourists detoured from visiting the Anne of Green Gables house, and hopefully sell them—and any other interested customers—some eel.

Eels won’t naturally breed in captivity. So, while Canada’s historic eel fishery is based on the netting and spearing of adult eels, the biggest money to be made these days is in using fine mesh nets to catch baby eels, called elvers, just off the coast, and then selling them, live, to Asian aquaculture farms. They’re then raised to maturity and processed, often into Japanese-style unagi kabayaki, a grilled eel fillet served with rice or in sushi.

Worker Doug Alder
Worker Doug Alder throws an eel back into a reservoir as he weighs a package of live eels for a shipment bound for Brussels at South Shore Trading in Port Elgin, New Brunswick. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

Back in 2000, a Philadelphia eel company owned by Feigenbaum and a friend acquired another eel company, this one based in New Brunswick. It came with an experimental elver license. Within a decade, that license went from almost worthless to a major paycheck: in 2010, responding to its own collapsing eel stocks, the European Union banned all exports and imports of elvers, and worldwide prices for elvers of any species soon skyrocketed.

Since then, American eel elvers, each about the length of a golf tee, have commanded between $1,100 and $5,500 per kilogram on the international market, reaching a peak in 2012 and 2013, says Feigenbaum—compared with $3.50 to $15 per kilogram for frozen, wild adult eels, which aren’t suited for industrial processing. That meant the region’s nine elver licenses—which includes one communal commercial license held by an Indigenous group—became the basis for a $20- to $30-million fishery practically overnight. Atlantic Canada’s adult eel fishery, by contrast, includes around 400 license holders, 14 of them Indigenous, and is worth only a fraction of that.

Alder guides live eels
Alder guides live eels into a weighing bucket at South Shore Trading. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

Given the money at stake, Feigenbaum’s ambitions exceed the complex of cavernous buildings in rural New Brunswick where South Shore Trading holds hundreds, sometimes thousands, of squirming American eels—both elvers and adults, depending on the season—in huge, noisy aerated tanks. He and a group of four other elver license-holding businesses and individual fishermen, along with three other investors, are putting their money behind NovaEel, a new eel aquaculture business with its eyes on the real prize: unagi.

The NovaEel team wants to disrupt China’s domination of the market by raising elvers, caught in the wild by its own shareholders, to full size in tanks within its own facilities as early as 2020. By processing eels into a packaged barbecued product, which they’d sell at 10 times the price of elvers, they’d pocket that extra cash, and keep it here in Atlantic Canada. Feigenbaum estimates NovaEel could create a $200- to $300-million per year market—10 times what Canada’s current elver eel industry is worth.

“Right now we’re hunters and gatherers,” he says. “We go into the river, and we collect seeds. We sell them for $10, and the Chinese turn them into $100.” The influx of money could provide an important boost to rural communities like Port Elgin, where unemployment is around 10 percent. For the plan to succeed, NovaEel needs a steady supply of elvers—which hinges on the hotly anticipated federal SARA ruling.

The elver fishery has faced opposition since it started, especially from Indigenous groups and commercial fishermen reliant on adult eels. It’s illogical, some critics say, to pluck sexually mature adults and juveniles from an ecosystem and expect that the stock won’t collapse. Maria Recchia of the Fundy North Fishermen’s Association says their commercial adult eel fishermen worry maintaining an elver fishery risks the species’ health and that of fish reliant on elvers as a food source. “They’re certainly hoping eels will not be listed as a species at risk, but at the same time they’re deeply concerned about the state of eels.”

Female American eels
Female American eels can grow up to a meter long, while males typically reach about half that size. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

In all of this, there’s one thing everyone does agree on: dams kill eels. Where numbers have plummeted—Lake Ontario, for example—scientists agree hydroelectric dams, spillways and road culverts are the primary culprits.

In 2013, Feigenbaum and other eel license holders founded the American Eel Sustainability Association. It wants to see power companies build eel ladders: gradients made of molded plastic, rocks, or metal, that help eels bypass dammed rivers and can help increase survival rates. He insists protecting the species requires setting good policy, not shutting the industry down. If the financial futures of fishermen depend on the long-term sustainability of a fish stock, he reasons, they’re more likely to try to protect it.

Plus, the United States has shown no sign of closing its fishery. Because the American eel comprises a single stock split into smaller populations along the entire Atlantic coast, Feigenbaum says a decision to close or limit the Canadian elver fishery would only hurt Canadian fishermen. In the absence of a similar decision south of the border, American eel fishermen would continue to profit off their own elver fishery.

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Like the planet’s other 16 or so catadromous eel species, which migrate from fresh water to the sea to spawn, American eels have at least five distinct life stages. They are born by the billions in the Sargasso Sea, a gyre of North Atlantic currents swirling near Bermuda, as clear, flat larvae. These grow into transparent, thread-like glass eels as they swim and are drawn by ocean currents along the coast from Greenland to Venezuela. They mature into opaque, dark brown-gray elvers and then into middle-aged yellow eels, many of which run up streams and rivers toward freshwater lakes and ponds.

When they reach sexual maturity, between the ages of four and 18, they are called silver eels and soon make their way back to the Sargasso, where they spawn and die.

Due to the animal’s huge geographic range, and the fact that each eel only spawns once, it has been extremely difficult to scientifically assess the health of the species. Baby eels likely don’t return to the rivers and streams of their parents, and the scientific techniques often used to determine health in other aquatic species aren’t always reliable.

Even their epic spawning journey is a theory: no one has ever witnessed it. In 2015, the Ocean Tracking Network, a research group based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, announced it had successfully tracked eight silver eels from the coast of Nova Scotia to the open ocean, with one making it all the way to its Sargasso spawning grounds. It was the first time the journey was confirmed, and the work was heralded as a breakthrough.

American eels
American eels start their lives in the Sargasso Sea and go through several more distinct life stages as they cycle to the coast and eventually back to sea to spawn. (Illustration by Mark Garrison)

One question regarding the stock’s health comes down to this: scientists aren’t certain what effects the elver fishery has on the overall health of the adult eel population. Baby eels come into certain rivers in very large numbers, says Prince Edward Island-based DFO research scientist David Cairns, who has spent much of his career studying the American eel. Yet few of them survive to adulthood.

One DFO fisheries management report from 1998 estimates the natural mortality rate for eels between the elver and silver eel stage at roughly 95 percent. “Harvesting of elvers becomes, essentially, part of the natural mortality,” it reads, “and is believed to have less impact on the stock than harvesting at later life stages.” Some models have shown that only 0.2 to 0.45 percent of larvae even reach the coast in the first place.

“If you harvest these small little guys, are you harvesting those that would have died either way?” Cairns asks. Science, he says, just doesn’t have a clear answer to this. Not yet.

Reviews in Canada and the United States have generally concluded the American eel is in “some degree of difficulty,” he says. But while some studies along river systems have shown precipitous declines, eel populations along the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, where he works, are three times what they were 20 years ago.

The longest-running study of American elvers—started in 1996 by DFO, suspended for five years, and now run in collaboration with an environmental nonprofit—takes place on the East River, in Chester, on Nova Scotia’s south coast. Technicians net, count and release the tiny eels as they enter the river. In 2014, they tallied 1.7 million elvers. They counted 657,000 in 2015, 2.3 million in 2016, and 800,000 in 2017. This is the best Canadian data available, but only represents a single river along a coastline dotted with thousands of rivers and streams, all potentially home—or not—to American eels.

American eels have yet to be commercially propagated in captivity, so fishermen collect wild animals for the elver trade. Video by Shutterstock

In 2006, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an arms-length expert panel responsible for preparing scientifically based species assessments used in the SARA listing process, identified the American eel as a species of special concern. Six years later, reacting to uncertainty around eel population data, the group upgraded its rating to threatened and issued a report.

DFO will use that COSEWIC report and information gathered from consultations with Indigenous groups, the fishing industry, the hydroelectric industry, provincial governments, and members of the public to inform its final recommendation to cabinet on whether or not the species should be listed under SARA. When that will happen is anyone’s guess: DFO spokesperson Steve Hachey says the department has “no idea when it will be announced.”

In 2007 and 2015, the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded its own Endangered Species Act protection wasn’t necessary, ruling the species “stable.” Late last year, the American eel management board for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced that the “resource remains depleted,” but opted to maintain Maine’s elver quota of around 4,400 kilograms for 2018.

For Feigenbaum, a SARA listing from the Canadian government would be illogical. But the company has a backup: if the Canadian government closes or drastically reduces the elver fishery, NovaEel CEO Paul Smith says they could move the business to Maine, which has shown no signs of closing its fishery. In Smith’s best-case scenario, NovaEel will eventually operate eel farms worldwide from Nova Scotia-based headquarters.

The assertion of Indigenous rights over natural resources is also increasingly playing a role in the drama of who is entitled to catch—and profit off—eels and elvers. A Nova Scotia working group on the American eel was established in spring 2017, bringing together staff from two Mi’kmaw environmental groups, DFO, and a group representing treaty negotiations on behalf of most Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, including Paqtnkek. NovaEel CEO Paul Smith says his company takes any opposition to the elver fishery seriously, and has met with nearly a dozen Atlantic First Nations to help keep communication open.

fish for mature eels
Those who fish for mature eels fear a fishery targeting juvenile eels puts too much pressure on the species. Here, Prosper holds one of the adult eels he speared—like so many of his ancestors before him—during a nighttime hunt. (Photo by Darren Calabrese)

While Mi’kmaw communities interested in participating in the elver fishery are within their rights to do so, Prosper says, his priority is ensuring the survival of his people’s cultural traditions and economic rights. And that includes defending and stewarding the American eel in the face of groups he calls a modern version of the historic colonial “Lords of Trade.”

As these debates rage in boardrooms, on docks, and in public consultations, the American eel itself remains a shadowy lead character. Perhaps, with its evolution-forged qualities, the species will be resilient enough to outlive humankind’s brief tyranny over its waters, reproducing quickly enough to keep up with growing demand for its flesh. Or, as Prosper fears, without government intervention, the American eel is bound to become the ocean’s next great casualty. If this were a simple fish then this might be a simpler equation. Yet this is the uncertain backdrop on which Mitchell Feigenbaum plans for the future, fishermen set their nets, scientists scramble for data, and Kerry Prosper skims through the water, spear at the ready, in his narrow metal canoe.

Back on Pomquet Harbour, near the end of my fishing trip with Prosper, the sky is a deep purple-black and it’s around midnight. Prosper hauls his box of a half-dozen eels off the boat—the motion startles them and they thrash about violently. He doubles back and stands ankle deep in the bay, staring out at the horizon. From his pocket, he pulls out a plastic baggie and sprinkles a handful of tobacco into the water. It is an offering thanking his ancestors for a successful trip. Behind him, the eels fall silent again, waiting for what comes next.

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