How Did Glass Eel Prices Get So High?

May 30, 2014

In 2012, glass eel harvests in Maine and South Carolina were valued at nearly $40 million.

Governor Dannel Malloy has vetoed a bill that could have brought a glass eel fishing season to Connecticut. Glass eels are a juvenile species of American eel that can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound, but how did those prices get so high?

You know a commodity's hot when it inspires a reality television show called "Eel of Fortune." That's a show that aired on Animal Planet (its name was later changed to "Cold River Cash") that told the story of fishermen trying to get rich off "slippery gold" by selling eels to Asian markets.

"The price of glass eels has increased over the past few years and that's the result of a number of factors outside of the U.S.," said Kate Taylor, biologist with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. She monitors eel stocks along the east coast.

Taylor said Asian markets got interested in American eels for two reasons. First, the European Union banned the export of European eels. Then, the 2011 tsunami curbed markets in Japan. "The Japanese eel and the European eel were the preferred eels for the for the Asian aquaculture markets and there was an inability for those two populations to meet the demand," Taylor explained. "Buyers turned to the American eel populations ... and that's why you saw an increase in the harvest and the price for glass eels within the U.S."

In 2012, glass eel harvests in Maine and South Carolina, the only two east coast states that allow glass eel fisheries, were valued at nearly $40 million. That number was 20 times greater than the average value for the past 11 years.

But there are signs the glass eel bubble is already starting to burst. In part, Taylor says, because the Japanese glass eel market is rebounding. That's pushed the value of glass eels down to about $600 to $800 per pound this year. Still, that's a lot of money for a creature no bigger than your pinkie.

There have been efforts to list glass eels as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Governor Dannel Malloy said he vetoed the Connecticut legislation because the state needs to be “good stewards of the environment.”