Tiny glass eel draws big money, political muscle and poachers

By on January 10, 2018

(Virginia Institute of  Marine Science)

During the past few years, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has slashed the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries budget by about 40 percent, leaving departments understaffed and some employees bending under heavy workloads.

First of three parts

At the same time,  a review of more than 3,000 public documents shows that  several elected and former state Department of Environmental Quality officials prompted what appears to be hundreds of hours of DMF time finding ways to justify obtaining a share of the federal glass eel quota to benefit just one company in Jones County — American Eel Farm, owned by Rick Allyn.

Since 2013, Allyn has solicited support from state senators Harry Brown, R-Jones, Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-Farmville.

For almost two decades, the glass eel has been closely regulated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American Eel Management Board (AEMB), which has limited glass eel harvesing to Maine and South Carolina.

Most glass eels are exported to Asia to be raised to a larger size for use in kabayaki and other popular Japanese dishes. A pound of glass eels — about the size of a grapefruit — can consist of 2,000-4,000 fish. They are juvenile fish that are still transparent with only their spines and eyes visible.

At one time, the lucrative market was filled mostly by European and Asian fishermen. But when the European Union banned exports because of declining numbers and Asia depleted Pacific stocks, American glass eels began fetching premium prices.

Following the EU ban on exports in 2010, the price paid to fishermen shot up from less than $100 to about $189 per pound and in recent years has topped $2,000. The dealers who purchase them can get 2.5 to 3 times that in the Asian market.

Louis Daniel

According to minutes from the American Eel Management Board’s February 2013 meeting, former DMF Director Louis Daniel proposed opening the glass eel fishery coastwide so more could share the bonanza.

“I’m hearing a $40 million fishery …” Daniel said. “I can catch eels. I can catch glass eels so I want to have that same opportunity … ”

“We’re sitting there watching these things dry up in these fields when the flooded impoundments are drained and you could harvest them with a rake, and we’re talking huge amounts of money. It is like catching larval fish. The Ms [mortalities] are 0.9999. Vote it up or down, but I felt absolutely compelled to bring it to the table,” Daniel said.

DMF emails state that, according to former Dare County Commissioner Mike Johnson, who manages farmland in Hyde County, the sought-after species can be found in abundance around pumping stations used to drain the fields as well as in the canals leading to Lake Mattamuskeet. These waters are under the jurisdiction of the state Wildlife Resources Commission, not the DMF, so couldn’t be considered without permission of that second agency.

Daniel’s proposal was voted down, but the issue was far from over.

Allyn began trying to use political muscle shortly after Daniel’s initial request for a coastwide quota.

An email written by Daniel on July 26, 2013 and sent to William Moore, congressional aide to US Rep. Walter Jones, explained why the state could not act. Daniel was responding o a request from Allyn to Jones’s Greenville office. Daniel said that the state did not have the authority to grant Allyn’s request for a state permit without permission from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. To do so, he wrote, would put the state out of compliance with the federal fishery management plan, which could result in punitive measures by the US Secretary of Commerce.

Later, Allyn returned to Jones’ office to again ask for help.

Josh Bowlen, Rep. Jones’ chief of staff, said Allyn expressed concern that a member of the American Eel Management Board had a conflict of interest in voting on matters involving glass eels because it might have benefited the member financially.

The subsequent Inspector General’s investigation found no wrongdoing.

Allyn donated at least $1,500 to Jones’ campaign.

While the quest to capture quota for North Carolina continued, in the background, federal and state law enforcement had an increasingly difficult time monitoring the fishery as the gold-rush effect attracted poachers.

See part 2 to find out why the American Eel Management Board’s concerns about illegal activity were part of the reasoning behind its original decision not not give a share of the glass eel quota to NC.

See what people are saying:

  • Lew Powell

    Good work, Sandy Semans Ross.

    Thursday, Jan 11 @ 10:58 am