Sushi Shortage Looms as Baby Eel Prices Set to Double

This season, a doomsday scenario for some means a booming business for Maine fishermen.

By Ethan L. Johns
March 12, 2018

Image: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images

Prepare for an (electric?) shock, because the price of that grilled eel on your unagi sushi might be headed for the sky.

This year, with a bad harvest in Asia and with European stocks tied up due to regulation, U.S. fishermen stand to win top dollar for their catch when it comes to baby eels, known as elvers. While it has the potential to cause headaches for consumers, it’s a boon to those who pull them out of rivers—particularly in Maine, which is home to the only notable eel fisheries in the U.S.

Maine fishermen realized the potential for the translucent elvers—also known as “glass eels”—in 2011, after a supply hole opened when Japanese farming operations were destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Exports from the E.U. had been banned in 2010, so Mainers filled the hole and earned up to $2,600 per pound for the service.

And that’s not even for fully-grown eel. During open season in Maine, which lasts from March until June, fisherman simply dip their nets into the water and scoop up the migrating elvers. These small elvers, which swim upstream from the ocean, are then sold overseas to Japanese farms which raise them to full size.

According to the Associated Press, a pound of elvers (over 2,000 of the little guys) went for $1,200 last year. That number is expected to rise—maybe even double—this year, driving higher demand with prices eventually being shifted to eel lovers.

Of course, wherever there is a lucrative profit to be made, there is also abuse. In 2013, Maine cut its total catch limit by 35 percent, introduced a quota system for fisherman and banned cash transactions. This was not only to deter poaching and theft, but also to protect and preserve fishing stocks. Limitations on catch further drive prices up.

The elver season starts on March 22nd, bringing millions of dollars into a fishing economy largely defined by the lobster trade. With this added income from the global economy, American fishermen can better feed their families. As long as they’re not feeding them eel.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns