Baby eels have changed fortunes for Maine’s fishermen — and brought trouble
After a devastating tsunami wiped out many of Japan’s eel farms, fishing for elvers meant big bucks and a black market.
ON TIDAL RIVERS AND STREAMS that course through coastal Maine, where salt- and freshwater collide, people wearing headlamps are flocking to the water’s edge in the middle of the night like 19th-century miners sifting the earth for specks of gold. They’re searching for baby eels, better known as elvers, pound for pound one of the most expensive live fish in the world.
The first time Julie Keene caught $33,000 worth of baby eels in a single night, she started crying because she thought she’d done something wrong. She hauled her bucket of eels up the riverbank in the darkness and handed it off to a buyer, who tried to give her a thick wad of cash in exchange for the squirming pile of translucent sea creatures, which look like long, skinny tadpoles. At first, though, she was too frightened to take the money.
“We’re really poor and stuff. We dig clams,” she explains. “You see something like that and you go — I mean, you can’t fathom it. It’s like they told you you just won the Powerball or something. You think, Oh my god, you know, I’m gonna be able to make some money.”
Keene is smoking a cigarette and pacing the muddy banks of the Penobscot River, where everybody says the eels are running so thick at night they look like a blue oil slick in the light of the moon. It’s early evening at the end of May, and the river is a dull gray, tipped with white where the current churns up through the middle. Across the water, up on a hill, is the red-brick silhouette of downtown Bangor, Maine.
Keene, who is 58 years old, has a weathered, weary face and reddish-blond hair tucked under a baseball cap. She’s spent her entire life on the water, working as a harbormaster, clam warden, shrimper, scallop dragger, and fish cutter, among other jobs. She paces anxiously in her muddy rubber waders, stealing glances at the river, fretting that we haven’t seen any eels yet. Earlier this afternoon, she told me to drive down a private dead-end road that led to this secluded fishing spot and warned that I could not, under any circumstances, put the specific location in writing. Elver fishermen are notoriously secretive about where they fish, for reasons both competitive (why give up the map in a treasure hunt?) and cautious (you never know who might creep up behind you in the dark).
“This was just all elvers last night. It made me sick,” she says, more to herself than anyone else, as she sloshes through the ankle-deep water. “It’s so sad. To think we can’t fish anymore [this season].”
Like many people who fish for eels, Keene’s got a loaded gun in her car, a fact that makes me slightly nervous, given how jumpy she is. Cans of mace, firearms, pepper spray, pocket knives, coolers strapped to pickup trucks: These are the accouterments of elver fishing, a mostly nocturnal and solitary business.
There’s a flinty pride among elver fishermen about the hardships they’ve endured alone in the middle of the night as they keep watch over their precious nets. They’ve weathered the elements, contended with predators like coyotes, and fallen on slick rocks. But most frightening of all are the human predators lurking in the darkness, waiting to slice your net and sabotage your catch or steal your spot.
One night, Keene was standing alone on a ledge over the river when she got “creeped out” and turned around. In the glow of her headlamp, she saw three men standing in the darkness. They stared at her and then walked off without a word.
“You see that current?” she says, pointing. “How hard would it have been to hit me over the head or give me a push?”
Maine’s eel boom kicked into high gear in 2012, when the price of elvers reached as high as $2,600 a pound after a devastating tsunami wiped out many of Japan’s eel farms, where wild-born eels are raised. But demand for the young eels, also called glass eels because they are transparent, has been rising for years as endangered European eels and depleted Japanese eels disappear. In the United States, where the eel population has been declared stable by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine is the only state that still has a thriving elver fishing industry. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, however, has deemed the American eel population endangered.
Glass eels are sold to dealers who export them through international seafood wholesalers and ship them live to aquaculture ponds in places like South Korea, China, and Japan, where they will mature into adult eels, a staple of many Asian diets.
This year, elvers were selling for more than $1,300 a pound, generating $12 million in taxable income for the state of Maine. (Aside from Maine, South Carolina allows people to fish for elvers, but only from one river.) Compare that with Maine’s most lucrative fishing industry, lobster, which sold for roughly $4 a pound and generated more than $533 million in 2016.
A few years ago, however, Maine’s eel industry was even more lucrative. In 2012, Maine fishermen caught $40 million worth of elvers. In 2013, they netted nearly $33 million.
When prices shot up, people desperate to change their fortunes along Maine’s uncluttered coast were trying to get eels however they could. And so the surge in value brought a dark side to the money: a black market for eels caught illegally by poachers.
They fished without licenses or sanctioned gear. They dipped their nets in places where elver fishing was prohibited. They sold eels to dealers and didn’t report it to the government. They cut nets, trampled vegetation along riverbanks, and generally caused chaos. At the height of the poaching in 2013, several states that are members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates elver fishing, wanted to close the fishery completely, says Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the agency that polices the state’s coastline.
“We could shut our fisheries down on the East Coast, but there will always be a black market if the price is $1,000 to $2,000 a pound,” Keliher says. “It’s no different from drugs at that point, right? The value is so high that people are going to be willing to take the risk.”
Instead, in an agreement struck with the commission in August 2013, Maine cut its total elver catch by 35 percent and instituted an individual quota for fishermen. The reasoning was twofold: to preserve the American eel, which the commission deemed “depleted,” and to deter the black market. To track eels from the rivers to exporters, the state created a swipe card that must be used for every eel transaction. Cash transactions were banned.
But by then, a more vigorous effort to fight the black market for eels was already underway.
Federal investigators and agents with the Fish and Wildlife Service were conducting an undercover investigation called Operation Broken Glass that caught elver poachers in the act. Since 2015, 15 people in several states have admitted to trafficking in more than $3.74 million worth of illegally harvested elvers.
In March, a grand jury in Maine indicted the most famous elver fisherman in America. He’s 70-year-old William Sheldon, a man people call the grandfather of eel fishing, who drove around with cash and guns in a truck that bore the license plates “EEL WGN.”
According to authorities, the man who helped create the elver fishing industry — and, even now, still runs an extensive network of eel dealers — conspired to smuggle elvers that were illegally poached in several states along the Eastern Seaboard.
He has pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy count as well as seven felony counts of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits interstate transport or transactions of any species of fish or wildlife illegally harvested or handled in any state. If he is convicted, each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Prosecutors say undercover agents caught Sheldon buying what he thought were poached eels from places where it was illegal to fish. He’s also accused of teaching eel dealers how to cover up where their poached elvers came from.
News of Sheldon’s indictment stunned the elver fishermen and -women who had trusted him and sought his advice. Now, some of them wonder if he’s to blame for their dimmed fortunes.
In 2012, Julie Keene and her longtime partner, Adam Boutin, made $300,000 catching eels. By comparison, the previous year, her income from eels had totaled $5,000.
They put the money in a box because they didn’t know what to do with it. Then they paid off their mortgage, bought new trucks, a John Deere tractor, and a bunch of Angus cows, built a new barn and a garage, and planted an apple orchard on their farm.
But that astonishing income has evaporated. And she doesn’t know if she’ll ever get it back.
“I was so damn poor. And then along come the eels and they went through the roof, and we knew how to catch them,” she says. “Yes, they could compare it to drugs, but I don’t view it like that. I view it as a godsend.”
ELVERS ARE SLY AND SKITTISH, prone to darting under rocks at the sound of a human foot on the riverbed and swimming away from the intrusive beam of a flashlight. They come from the Sargasso Sea, a vast portion of the Atlantic Ocean east of Bermuda that is bounded by four circulating currents, where hundreds of millions of them hatch from eggs and are carried toward coastal areas, as far north as Greenland.
They prefer to race upstream in packs after the sun sinks below the horizon, journeying under cover of darkness toward freshwater habitats, their final destination, where they will spend years changing color and maturing into fully grown eels. When they reach old age, American eels return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn before they die. No one is exactly sure why. And no one has ever actually seen them spawn — biologists have pieced together their life cycle, though they can’t be totally sure.
It’s all part of the eels’ mystique.
“I wish you could talk to Bill, ’cause he knows all of this,” says Jessica Card, sighing, as she tries to explain the eels’ journey. There’s admiration and affection in her voice when she talks about Sheldon, whom she’s known for years. “He’s a marine biologist, he’s the one that’s into it. He’s so smart.”
I was momentarily startled when I met Card, who looks like she has just stepped out of a suburban mall, not a person who fishes for eels, digs for bloodworms, and scrubs scallops for a living. She is wearing dark skinny jeans, a camouflage North Face vest, and strappy orange braided sandals, though she dons green waders when it’s time to go check on her net. She is trying to catch her last bucket of eels for the season.
Before the eel business went crazy in 2012, Card’s family lived in a trailer. With the more than $100,000 they made during that run, they built a house and paid it off in full and bought 23 acres of land. She even used some of that money for plastic surgery, a fact she’s defiant about. Both Card and Keene are annoyed that people make them feel as if they’re privileged to fish for eels. As if they haven’t earned their money. They scoff at the condescension of lobstermen, who, they insist, make far more money.
“I walk into a store, your local store, where all the fishermen hang out,” Keene says, her voice rising with indignation. “ ‘Oh, here comes the elver queen.’ That’s what they call me.”
Card and Keene are good friends, a sort of Thelma and Louise pair. They fish together regularly and have an easy rapport. A tan and blond 33-year-old mother of two, Card is laid-back and friendly and often teases her older friend about being too high-strung. Keene, meanwhile, frets over where to find eels, whether our group will see any, whether it will stop raining, whether she will lose her elver fishing license, whether Card got enough sleep last night (she did), and whether the coat I brought is warm enough against the damp chill (it isn’t).
“You’re nervous about everything,” Card says, laughing.
“I know,” Keene says. “Your bag’s gonna get wet, baby.”
“It’s waterproof,” Card says. “I’m gonna zip it up.”
They set Card’s net in a shallow area near the shore and weigh it down with rocks. Because it’s the end of the season — elver fishing takes place from March through early June — sometimes the eels are swimming during the day now, too, since they’re getting a little bit stronger and bolder, determined to reach freshwater.
As we wait to see if she’ll catch any, Jessica’s husband, Jeremy Card, joins us along the river. He’s already caught his own personal quota and has to dump back a quarter of a bucket that, he estimates, is worth about $500. Jeremy, a scallop and sea urchin diver, is thin and lean and moves with an easy, athletic grace. Like everybody else around here, he’s giving me advice on where I could find eels.
“There’s a brook up here on the left, a little tiny brook. And you can go up there and they’ll be climbing right over the rocks, like out of the water completely, to get up over the rapids,” he says.
When Jeremy thinks about the Wild West days of elver fishing in 2012 and 2013, when it was legal to catch as many of them as you pleased, he wishes he had been holding the pole of his net over the side of his boat and riding around all night, every night. He could have made millions, he says.
“They changed it all when the money came in it,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. They don’t want people like us making that kind of money, you know? And there’s too much temptation for people to cheat. That’s what killed us.”
He drops the eels back in the river and they slither away, though not as quickly as they would have at the beginning of the season, he tells me.
“I think they just get stronger and more desperate, and they know they’re supposed to be at a certain place or point, you know, every year,” he says. “And when it starts getting later in the season, they just start going day and night cause they have to go.”
Keene sits down wearily on a rock and begins telling me about Lubec, a beautiful, isolated and very poor town in Down East Maine, where generations of her family worked as lighthouse keepers and fished for herring and packed sardines before the factories shut down. Even if the elver quota ultimately expands, under state law she’s not allowed to hand her elver fishing license down to her son, who digs clams for a living. Fishermen and women are losing their cultural identity on the coast, she says.
“My kids are so goddamn poor,” she says, starting to cry. “My son lives in a house that’s full of mold with a new baby. He can’t fish. I can fish, so I try to help him.”
She’s almost sobbing now, staring gloomily out at the water.
“I’m upset now. No, it’s all right. You don’t understand how important this is to us. You know, to have all these people say all this [expletive] about us, they don’t even know who we are. They know nothing about this fishery. And the people that are making all the decisions don’t know anything about this fishery. They won’t come with us. They won’t see.”
Keene perks up a little when she sees an elver darting among the tide pools. She’s through with fishing for the season, but the night before, she stayed out here till 4 a.m., helping another friend because she can’t bear to be away from the eels.
“Because it’s not as easy as throwing that net in there. It’s almost like a treasure hunt,” she says. “But it’s more than that. It’s you out with nature. It’s you watching this incredible thing come from the Sargasso Sea.”
Individual elver quotas were determined by averaging how much each fisherman caught and officially reported to the state in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The ones with bigger quotas — like Jessica Card, for instance, who has 38 pounds — are still making a steady income from eels despite the cuts. So perhaps that’s why she’s less bitter than Keene, why she seems sanguine about the whole poaching thing.
It’s hard for Card to reconcile Sheldon’s criminal case with the friend she’s known for years, who taught her about eels’ fragility and advised her on how to keep them alive in their tanks. She still texts him regularly for advice, even borrows nets that he built himself.
She shows me his Facebook profile, where he’s been posting photos of rare coins he collects from the shore with a metal detector. She points out a photo of his blond-haired granddaughter, smiling next to a tank of eels.
“I get so mad when people say, ‘Well, you must’ve known this poaching was going on,’ ” Keene says. “It’s like, ‘What?’ ”
I ask Card, who has gotten quiet, if she was surprised to hear about the accusations against Sheldon.
“Yeah, actually, I was,” she says. “I’ve never seen him do anything like that, so it didn’t seem . . . ” Her voice trails off.
While Sheldon may have a lot of money, he doesn’t flaunt it, Card says.
If he did have money, she insists, you wouldn’t know it.
“He’s just like any of us,” she says. “Just a fisherman.”
LIKE THEIR SLIPPERY PREY, elver fishermen can be evasive and difficult to pin down.
Bill Sheldon is supposed to meet me at a tidy, white-shingled motel near the river, where he has rented a room during elver fishing season. The motels along the Penobscot are busy this time of year. People fish all night, transport their eels to a dealer, and collapse into bed as the sun rises. Though his trial begins in September, Sheldon is allowed to continue fishing and dealing eels. For years, he bought more than half of the state’s quota, 6,000-plus pounds a year. This year, though, he’s taken a hit. Some refused to sell to him after reading of his indictment in the local papers.
When we spoke by phone the day before I arrived in Bangor, Sheldon had told me he had 1 pound of elvers left to fish and planned to check his net around midnight. He promised to show me some video of himself catching some “pretty big numbers” of eels.
I knock on the door and wait. No response. I knock again and still there is no sound, aside from the birds chirping in the trees. I peer through the window at the top of his door. The bed is made and the room is empty.
I call his cellphone. He picks up and apologizes gruffly, explaining he’s back at his shop in Ellsworth. His lawyer, Walter McKee, told him not to speak with me, though he has already given interviews to other reporters in recent months. (McKee later declined to comment.) I ask what he’ll be doing for the rest of the day.
“Some of these guys will catch eels tonight and they’ll sell ’em to me,” he says. “As far as me participating in this episode tonight or doing any interviews, it’s just not possible.”
But one of Sheldon’s good friends, Darrell Young, the stout and amiable founder and co- director of the Elver Fishermen’s Association, is eager to talk about his longtime buddy and meets me along the riverbank. His voice is thick and syrupy, with a Maine accent so strong, it’s sometimes difficult to understand him.
Elver fishing was always a side income for Young, as it was for most fishermen, until the price went up. Before that, he tended divers on dive boats and worked as a stern man on a lobster boat, until his back started bothering him in recent years.
“If you ain’t got 12 jobs in Maine, you ain’t surviving,” he says. “This is, like I said, a short season. Eleven weeks out of the year, and then we just move on and do other things to make a dollar. You’ve got to.”
In 2013, Maine fishermen caught a total of just over 18,000 pounds of elvers. Since 2015, they have been restricted to catching a maximum of 9,688 pounds, an amount that is up for renegotiation this fall when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission votes on a new quota. Young is hoping for a 2,000-pound increase. They’ve cleaned up the fishery and cracked down hard on the poaching, he points out.
“I hope they give our fishery back to us,” he says.
When I start asking questions about Sheldon, Young gives me a look, and I can tell he’s debating whether he can trust me.
Sheldon taught him how to fish, he explains. Decades ago, Sheldon worked for the Maine Department of Marine Resources and wrote a paper about eels. He developed many different techniques for catching them and even created an eel trap that was later named after him.
“He was one of the pioneering individuals in the glass eel fishery,” says Keliher of the Department of Marine Resources.
Part of the reason nobody ever suspected him of potentially poaching is that Sheldon never got caught in Maine. The wardens always found him in compliance with the law.
When Young found out that Sheldon was under investigation three years ago, he stopped speaking to him for a while. He wouldn’t sell him any eels and says he’d “run him down a bit” to the other fishermen. But he says no one believed him until a few months ago, when Sheldon was formally charged.
“You can tell when Bill lies,” Young says with a rueful smile. “Lips get going, they don’t say nothing.” He laughs. “I can read him like a book.”
They’ve since patched up their differences. But there’s one question that eats him up a little, and he wants me to “dig into” it as I report my story: How much did Sheldon’s alleged poaching hurt the fishery that he helped nourish for so many years?
THE ROAR OF RUSHING WATER fills my ears as the marine warden shines his flashlight on pools we’re standing in at the mouth of a dam in Frankfort, Maine. It’s about 9 p.m., prime time for elver spotting, given the tides. And suddenly, as the beam of light illuminates the shallow depths, I realize I am surrounded by mounds of wriggling eels.
There are eels piled like gray spaghetti in the current, racing toward the dam. There are chains of eels forming slimy, squirming gray ropes to help one another over the rocks. There are whole bushels of eels hiding in deep water holes. At first glance, I mistake them for seaweed.
This is the promised land for eels, the end of their journey. At the dam, a fishway is set up to help the elvers get to the place they’ve been searching for, the freshwater on the other side. That’s why elver fishing is not permitted here. It’s also why this place is a poacher’s delight.
Rustin Ames, the young, clean-cut marine patrol officer who has taken me here, hands me a clump of eels. It feels like trying to hold a handful of worms, and I drop them almost immediately back into the water.
“If you ran your dip net right through here, you’d probably pick up four or five pounds, so you’re talking $6,000, $7,000 within 20 minutes, and then you’re outta here,” explains Rick Sibley, an older, lanky eel fisherman whom Ames brought along for the ride. The two men gaze at the cornucopia of eels almost reverently, amazed by the sight of them pushing their way through the dam.
“They’re finding a way, don’t you worry,” says Sibley, like a proud parent. “These eels ain’t going back.”
Ames, who describes himself as a referee for the state’s fishing industries, spends his days and nights trying to catch poachers. There’s less work to do during eel season since the fishery has cleaned itself up through the strict regulations, with just five elver fishing violations recorded in 2016, compared with 220 violations in 2013. In 2012 and 2013 when poaching was rampant, the marine patrol spent up to $100,000 a year on overtime during the eel harvest to keep officers out on the coast all night, trying to catch people in the act.
“I’m looking for the guy who is down here without any lights on, who’s sneaking around here and trying to get those eels to market, and knows he’s breaking the law,” Ames explains. “Take the cheaters out of business, basically.”
People are still trying to smuggle illegally caught eels from elsewhere into Maine, where they can sell them. Unlicensed fishermen are still trying to catch eels and sell them without getting caught. And dealers are still buying eels for cash under the table.
Tim Sheehan, an elver dealer in northern Maine, says that sometimes he’ll see a fisherman come into his shop with a “whole bunch of eels” while another person waits outside.
“Looking, watching, waiting,” Sheehan says. “And you know what’s going on.”
Tonight, however, most of Ames’s time is occupied with pursuing possible poachers of smelt, a small fish that you can catch with a hand-held dip net. We chase down a couple of false leads on people scooping up more smelts than the permissible limit. (Ames keeps a quart container in his truck for measuring purposes.) When we pull onto the side of the road behind a possible poachers’ car, he clambers into a ditch and hides before the fishermen emerge from the darkness, wearing headlamps and carrying a bucket of smelts that is not, it turns out, over the limit.
“This is the best job in the world,” he declares.
Toward the end of the night, Ames sharply turns the car onto a side street in pursuit of a red pickup truck with Ohio plates and large oxygenated tanks strapped to the back, the very type used to transport eels. It’s headed toward a known poacher’s house, he says.
“The thing is, though, he’s probably buying, if he’s coming up here,” he says. “So he wouldn’t probably have anything on him.”
We pull into a driveway and wait, to make the driver of the truck think we have stopped following him. Then Ames guns the engine and we fly down winding roads trying to find the truck again. But it is gone.
It’s nearly midnight as we make our last stop at an eel shop run by Roger Bintliff. The half-Korean dealer managed hotels until about five years ago, when Korean and Chinese seafood exporters started checking in and inquiring about eels and he helped translate for them. Imagine an American going to China and trying to buy an octopus, he had explained to me on the phone. Sensing a lucrative opportunity, Bintliff got an elver dealing license right as the industry was heating up. Bintliff deals in about 3,000 pounds of eels a season, depending on the fluctuating price and demand. Some years, he says, he loses money because the eels die before he can sell them or because he buys eels at a higher price and then is forced to sell them for less after the price dips.
He has promised to meet me here at his shop and show me around. But as the night wears on, we’ve exchanged texts and phone calls in which he offers a series of confusing explanations as to why he’s running late and probably won’t be able to meet. (He later tells me he was trying to meet up with a foreign exporter.)
Bintliff’s buying station is located in a small, two-story building that normally serves as a store for custom-built spiral stairs. A marquee with a lighted arrow pointing toward the store proclaims BUYING GLASS EELS. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, the building’s contents are on full display, reminding me of a life-size dollhouse. Inside are a folding table, two huge blue plastic tanks, and a few white plastic buckets on the floor. Hanging above the tanks are about a dozen nets of assorted sizes and colors.
“When people go to sleep,” Bintliff had told me, “this fishery comes alive.”
As I drive back to my hotel along curving roads, glittering black bodies of water suddenly appear out of nowhere — at least a dozen little ponds and winding streams tucked into the landscape — and I think of the handful of marine wardens out there, like Ames, trying to police more than 3,000 miles of coastline.
I think about Julie Keene sitting alone on the riverbank with her gun nearby, keeping vigil over her friend’s net. The eels are out there somewhere, hurrying to their final destination. Whether they’ll ever make it is anybody’s guess.