Rush to fill global demand for sushi eels led to major smuggling racket in Northeast

In 2010, the contraction of stressed eel fisheries in Europe and Japan touched off a gold rush for U.S. eels, and led to a multi-state smuggling effort that has produced 11 guilty pleas and is still unwinding in the courts, according to the latest story from The Food & Environment Reporting Network, in partnership with National Geographic.

“By 2012 the price for the American species had skyrocketed to more than $2,000 a pound, creating an eel rush for fishermen in Maine,” writes Rene Ebersole in National Geographic. “Guys who’d scraped by in the off-season doing construction jobs, painting houses, and collecting seaweed now raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in the eel fishing season, which ends during the first week in June.”

“Turf wars erupted between fishermen that ended in fistfights,” she writes. “Poachers donned scuba masks to reach restricted areas. And there were robberies. In 2013 an eel poacher named Alan Perkins broke into a local seafood business and tried to make off with a five-gallon bucket of glass eels worth $10,000. The business owners fought to capture him, but he got away. After a month-long manhunt, police finally hauled him into the Hancock County Jail. He was indicted on charges of burglary, theft, and violating release and was sentenced to seven years in jail.”

The U.S. eel fishery had only been around since the 1970s, and was a distant third behind European and Asian industries in terms of supplying the sushi demand. Still, by the late 1990s, many of the U.S. fisheries were shutting down out of concern that the eel was being overfished. “Today glass eels can be taken only in South Carolina, which maintains a small fishery, and Maine, where the annual quota is just under 10,000 pounds,” says Ebersole.

When the gold rush hit, the temptation to ignore those restrictions surged. Operation Broken Glass, a federal undercover investigation, targeted dealers who “were buying glass eels from places where it was illegal to fish them, trucking them to destinations where they could be mixed with legal eels, doctoring shipping dossiers, and exporting them to Asia,” says Ebersole. These are the eels that end up as unagi on sushi menus around the world.

To date, 11 men have pleaded guilty to eel laundering, and two more are slated to go to trial this summer.