Eel trafficking is a multi-million dollar business — that hardly anyone knows about. 

Maine’s rivers and streams surge with glinting populations of baby glass eels that serve for the economic livelihoods of many of its fishermen.

American eel larvae (Anguilla rostrata) are carried by the Gulf Stream out of the Sargasso Sea and deposited along the coastline from South America up to Greenland. Baby eels swim upstream and make their homes in freshwater rivers, congregating in masses around eelgrass before they mature and eventually make their way back to the ocean.

These baby glass eels have become both the boon and the bane of Maine area fisherman. After the export ban on European eels in 2010, a sudden shortage caused a huge increase in the demand for American eel, especially by Japan.

Image: Fish and Wildlife Service

This demand resulted in the glass eel “gold rush”, where previously poor struggling fisherman were suddenly earning up to $2,000 for a pound of eel. Entire communities were recovering as the demand for glass eel persisted.

The majority of the eels fished out of east coast waters are boxed up and shipped to Asia to be raised on aquaculture farms until they are large enough for consumption.

There was a point when activities became dangerous, for dealers were often strapped with large amounts of cash at any given time and thieves targeted buckets of valuable eels stored at fisheries. Many kingpins hired bodyguards and almost all dealers carried guns.

Throughout the 1990s, eel numbers around the coast began to decline, and the government finally got involved. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission banned eel fishing in some states and enacted strict quotas in others.

It was around this time that the government initiated ‘Operation Broken Glass’ in order to monitor illegal activities taking place in the eel trade. The magnitude of involvement was staggering as huge laundering and trafficking schemes along the East Coast unfolded.

Large quantities of eels were illegally fished from restricted areas and mixed into legal operations before being shipped overseas. Seven men plead guilty in October 2016 in the federal district court in Portland, Maine to trafficking a total of more than $1.9 million worth of glass eels. This was just one of many similar cases.

While the investigations are ongoing, the future of eel fishing remains uncertain.