Eel shortage could be bad news for sushi lovers

Sushi lovers could feel the effects of an eel shortage on the international market.
Sushi lovers could feel the effects of an eel shortage on the international market.

MEMBERS of Maine's baby-eel fishing industry are expecting high prices for the tiny fish this year because of a shortage on the international market, and sushi lovers could end up feeling the pinch.

Maine is the only US state with a significant fishery for baby eels, or elvers.

The tiny, translucent eels are sold to Asian aquaculture companies to be raised to maturity for use as food.

They're a key piece of the worldwide supply chain for Japanese dishes such as unagi, and some eventually make it back to the US.

The eels sold for about $1300 per pound at the docks last year, about on par with an ounce of gold, and are already one of the most lucrative fisheries in the country on a per-pound basis.

Fishermen in Asia are seeing a poor harvest this year, and European eel fisheries are cracking down on poaching, said state Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, a Dresden Republican and consultant to the elver fishery.

That means Maine's elvers will be in higher demand, and prices could be higher for consumers.

"It was just a bad year in Asia," Pierce said.

"With Europe tightening up that market, and us already having tightened up, it should be a good year."

The elver fishing season begins March 22 and ends June 7.

They are fished by nets from rivers and streams and sold to dealers in a tightly regulated fishery that uses a swipe-card system to deter poaching. It takes more than 2000 elvers to make a pound.

Richie Akizaki, a sushi chef at Benkay in Portland, said he buys his eels from a New York distributor who has told him prices will likely be double the normal amount this summer.

"Eel prices are going to be really high this year," he said.

Topics:  eel shortage sushi

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