American eel (Anguilla rostrata) are a catadromous fish species, spending most of their life in freshwater or estuarine environments, traveling to the ocean as adults to reproduce and die. Sexually maturing eel migrate to spawning grounds located in the Sargasso Sea, a large portion of the western Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas and south of Bermuda. American eel are a panmictic stock, meaning that individuals from the entire range come together to reproduce. American eel found along the eastern coast of Mexico are from the same population as eel found in the St. Lawrence River in Canada.
American eel have a multitude of life stages: leptocephali, glass eel (also known as elvers), yellow eel, and silver eel. Yellow eel are the primary life stage harvested by commercial and recreational fishermen.
Student with glass eels and elvers as part of NYSDEC's American Eel Project. Photo credit: Chris Bower, NYSDEC.
American eel are an important resource from both a biodiversity and human use perspective. They serve as an important prey species for many fish, aquatic mammals and fish-eating birds. Although fisheries are a fraction of what they were historically, eel support valuable commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries.
From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, American eel supported significant commercial fisheries, with landings ranging from 2.5 to 3.6 million pounds. Landings dropped to 1.6 million pounds in 1987 and have remained at low levels, ranging from 1.5 million to 700,000 pounds since then. State reported landings of yellow and silver eels in 2012 totaled over one million pounds and were valued at approximately $1.5 million. Yellow and silver eel landings in 2012 were the second highest in the past decade, decreasing by 8% from the decade high achieved in 2011. Since 2010, increased demand for glass eels by foreign markets has led to a dramatic increase in the value of glass eel, with record high prices for catch being recorded.
In 2012, glass eel harvest from Maine and South Carolina totaled 22,215 pounds and was valued at nearly $40 million, 20 times greater than the average value for the past 11 years. According to preliminary landings data, Maine and South Carolina harvested an estimated 20,320 pounds of glass eels in 2013.
Recreational harvest has been on the decline since its peak in 1985 at 160,000 eel. Harvest was last estimated to be around 6,000 in 2009 (the last year the Marine Recreational Information Program collected recreational data on American eel). Given the limited scope of the fishery in recent years, there is limited monitoring of recreational catch by the states.
From a biological perspective, much is still unknown about the species. Information is limited about their abundance, status at all life stages, and habitat requirements. According to the 2012 benchmark stock assessment, American eel population is depleted in U.S. waters. The stock is at or near historically low levels due to a combination of historical overfishing, habitat loss, food web alterations, predation, turbine mortality, environmental changes, toxins and contaminants, and disease. The Panel Review Panel that reviewed and endorsed the stock assessment for management use urged the Commission to examine alternative reference points to provide more protection to the spawning stock biomass.
In 2010, the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy, and Reliability (CESAR) petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list American eel under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In September 2011, USFWS concluded the petition may be warranted and initiated a status review to assess the health of the population and the magnitude of threats facing the species. However, in August 2012, CESAR filed a lawsuit against USFWS for failure to publish a proposed rule within the timeframe specified by the ESA. A Settlement Agreement was approved in April 2013, which requires USFWS to publish its proposed rule by September 30, 2015.
American eel are a challenging species to conserve and manage on a coastwide basis for a number of reasons. During its life-span the American eel will have navigated through and resided in a wide range of habitats, from the oceanic waters of the Sargasso Sea to the brackish waters of coastal estuaries and the inland freshwater river systems. Additionally, throughout this journey, eel will have been under a myriad of management authorities, from international to multiple federal, state and local governments. Life history characteristics such as late age of maturity and a tendency to aggregate during certain life stages further confound conservation efforts.
American eel are managed by the Commission in territorial seas and inland waters along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Increasing demand for eel by Asian markets and domestic bait fisheries, coupled with concern about declining eel abundance and limited assessment data, spurred development of the first Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for American Eel in the mid-1990s. The plan, approved in 1999, provided several reasons why heavy harvest pressure may adversely affect American eel populations: (1) American eel have a slow rate of maturation, requiring eight to 24+ years to attain sexual maturity; (2) glass eel tend to aggregate seasonally during migration, making them vulnerable to directed harvest; (3) harvest of yellow eel is a cumulative stress, over multiple years, on the same yearclass; and (4) all fishing mortality occurs prior to spawning.
In response to the 2012 stock assessment, which indicated that the American eel population in U.S. waters is depleted, the Commission approved Addendum III (August 2013) and Addendum IV (October 2014) to the Interstate FMP with the goal of reducing mortality and increasing conservation of American eel stocks across all life stages. Addendum III establishes new management measures for both the commercial (glass, yellow, and silver) and recreational eel fisheries, and implements fishery-independent and fishery-dependent monitoring requirements. Addendum IV establishes a 907,671 pound coastwide quota for yellow eel fisheries, reduces Maine’s glass eel quota to 9,688 pounds (2014 landings), and allows for the continuation of New York’s silver eel weir fishery in the Delaware River.
For yellow eel fisheries, the coastwide quota will be implemented for the 2015 fishing year but will not initially include state-specific allocations. Instead, the Addendum establishes two management triggers: (1) exceeding coastwide quota by more than 10% in a given year, or (2) exceeding the coastwide quota for two consecutive years regardless of the percent overage. If either one of the triggers are met then states would implement state-specific allocation based on average landings from 2011-2013.
Maine will continue to maintain daily trip level reporting and require a pound-for-pound payback in the event of quota overages in its glass eel fishery. Additionally, the state will implement a fishery-independent life cycle survey covering glass, yellow and silver eels within at least one river system. The Addendum specifies that these requirements would also be required for any jurisdiction with a commercial glass eel fishery harvesting more than 750 pounds.
Addendum IV provides states/jurisdictions the ability to request limited participation in the glass eel fishery based on conservation programs enacted after January 1, 2011, and given there is an overall benefit to American eel populations. Examples of conservation programs include, but are not limited to, habitat restoration projects, fish passage improvements, or fish passage construction. The Addendum also provides opportunities for a limited glass eel harvest for domestic aquaculture purposes and allows the continuation of New York’s Delaware River silver eel weir fishery under a transferable license cap, limited to nine permits annually.