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 August 2013, in response to the findings of the 2012 stock assessment, the Commission approved Addendum III to the Interstate FMP, with the goal of reducing mortality and increasing conservation of American eel stocks across all life stages. The Addendum establishes new management measures for both the commercial (glass, yellow, and silver) and recreational eel fisheries, as well as implements fishery independent and fishery dependent monitoring requirements. As approved, Addendum III reduces overall mortality of American eel. Given the wide range of public input received during the development of Addendum III, some of the proposed management options originally considered in the public comment draft of Addendum III were transferred to Draft Addendum IV for further development. Draft Addendum IV, which proposes a wide range of management options for the glass, yellow, and silver eel commercial fisheries, was released in late May for public comment (public comment will be accepted until July 17, 2014). The American Eel Management Board will review submitted comment and consider final action on the addendum in August at the Commission's Summer Meeting.
In late 2013, the American Eel Management Board approved a conservation equivalency proposal from the State of Maine to allow quota management of its glass eel fishery. A quota of 11,749 pounds is in place for Maine’s 2014 glass eel fishing season, which began on April 6th. This quota, developed with input from Maine’s fishing industry and Tribal Nations, represents a 35% reduction in 2013 Maine’s glass eel harvest. In addition to quota management, Maine has implemented a harvester swipe card system with daily dealer reporting in order to increase accuracy of landings data and reduce opportunities for illegal harvest. For more information on Maine's actions click here.