Commercial Eel Fishery
natural range of American eels, Anguilla rostrata, extends
from southern Greenland to the northern coast of South America.
A catadramous species, the eel spends most of its life in fresh
and brackish water. Upon reaching sexual maturity (8-30 years),
eels undergo physiological changes, enabling them to migrate
to the salty Sargasso Sea to spawn. A single female can produce
8.5 million eggs! After spawning, the adult eels die, and the
cycle begins anew.
| 1999 U.S. Exports
of American Eels
Data from NMFS Fisheries Statistics
and Economics Division
Eels are harvested in the United States between spring
and fall. Typically, glass eels (2-4 inches) are caught
in spring/early summer as they migrate upstream into the
tributaries. Elvers and yellow eels (>4 inches, but not
sexually mature) are harvested throughout the season. Silver
eels (sexually mature adults) are harvested in the fall as
they travel toward the sea to spawn. Currents, sediment type,
body of water, and eel size are factors that influence the
trap design each fisherman favors. Square pots, fyke nets,
dip nets, and weirs are all considered to be tools of the
watermen typically use square pots to catch the elusive yellow
eels. Fishermen are prohibited from harvesting eels smaller
than 6 inches in length. An average of 100-150 pots are baited
and tended every 2-3 days. Although bait preferences
differ by region, horseshoe crabs, especially egg-laden females,
are the preferred bait in Delaware Bay. Between one-half
to one horseshoe crab is used to bait each pot. In a survey
of Delaware Bay watermen, annual bait needs of each eel fisherman
were estimated to be 5,000 horseshoe crabs. The fishery season
lasts approximately 16 weeks.
Over one million pounds of eels were harvested in 1999. Some were used as bait for recreational fishing, such as striped bass; others were destined for blue crab bait. The majority, however, were purchased for sale in domestic and foreign seafood markets. Japan imports about 30% of the eels they cultivate for human consumption.
In 1999, 50% of the eel harvest was exported, live or frozen, to foreign countries. Whether raw, cooked, or smoked, eels are considered a delectable delicacy. Next time you visit your local sushi restaurant, try some unagi. You might be surprised by the taste!