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Big Cash for Tiny Eels Draws Poachers to R.I.

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The American eel has a catadromous life cycle. It spawns in the ocean and migrates to fresh water to grow to adult size.A number of Maine residents really like Rhode Island fish, especially young eel. They also don’t like paying for them.

Several Maine residents were recently caught by police in the act of taking the tiny eels near fish ladders along local streams and lakes. The motive for the crime? The young fish sell for about $2,500 a pound.

The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has made arrests, but hasn't released details. In recent weeks, DEM officials have been alerting police department across the state to look for the poachers.

In Barrington, police encountered three Maine residents shortly before 2 a.m. May 4 as they planned to take the young eels, known as elvers, from Echo Lake. Gary Wayne Beverage, 38, of Jefferson, Maine, showed police the buckets and trolling nets he planned to catch the fish with. Beverage was arrested and charged with felony narcotics possession.

Two other Maine residents carrying nets and fishing gear were also questioned after a traffic stop in East Providence about 1 a.m. April 29.

The tiny eels, between 2 and 4 inches long, spawn in salt water and migrate to freshwater rivers and lakes, where they feed and grow for up to 20 years. The eels are shipped to Asia, where there is strong demand for the young fish.

Maine and South Carolina are the only states that allow elver fishing. Officials worry that Maine license holders are poaching the small fish in other states such as Rhode Island and bringing them back to Maine where there is a lucrative and legal market for selling the fish. Arrests for elver poaching have been a regular occurrence from New Jersey to Maine since mid-March.

The American eel, or glass eel, is labeled “stressed” due to overharvesting and the loss of habitat. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering endangered species protection for the eels.

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