The Fish Story

It’s Ugly Times for Elvers; Tick Talk Around the Clock

By JAY MANN | May 09, 2018

A SLIPPERY SLOPE FOR ELVERS: The elver showing in Ocean County’s backbay areas is on a slippery slope. This year, the local creeks they follow from bay to freshwater haunts are sadly lacking their presence.

For the unelverized, elvers are tiny pubescent American eels, swimming in from the Atlantic, heading for backbay creeks to begin a freshwater life phase. They’re clear as glass, so you can call them glass eels, as many others do – though, technically speaking, elvers are a tad more mature than glass eels – but who’s watching, since they’re nocturnal and see-through.

As with all young-of-year, elvers represent the future of the species, a species important to both the biosystem and many an angler. When between 5 and 10 inches long, they’re beloved as a live bait for fishing stripers. When fully grown, they’ve long been a scrumptious semi-seafood foodstuff. And they can get dang big in our parts. The N.J. state record rod-caught eel was 41 inches long and weighed over 6 pounds.

It’s during the elver/glass eel phase that American eels become drop-dead precious, fetching as much as $2,500 a pound in the eel-starved Asian market, where they grow the tiny East Coast eels into a perfect eating size. In places like Japan, every morsel of an eel is eaten or made into a tea-like substance that supposedly staves off summer heat … when drunk hot. Whatever.

The current value of elvers, standing at $2,608 a pound, hints at why they might be in a precarious state of survival. They are humanly coveted, often to a highly illegal harvesting degree.

Bad eel times are also arriving from other ugly angles. Per the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, a 2017 stock assessment indicated “The American eel population remains 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.” Ouch.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the American eel is at very high risk of extinction in the wild.

To help the species, most elver-bearing states, except Maine and South Carolina, forbid the taking of any and all tiny eels. As to what that means to New England poachers: The laws are a hill of beans. Just this year, two Maine men were indicted in New Jersey, part of a sting operation aimed at an illegal East Coast elver-trafficking ring. To date, the state and federal sting has netted 19 guilty pleas, via the federal Lacey Act. To get a financial feel for the busted elver-poaching ring, from 2011 through 2014, the 19 convicted “players” transported and marketed more than $5.25 million worth of baby eels, according to court records.

By the by, the Lacey Act is the nation’s prime conservation law, aimed at anyone trading in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold. I keep it close at mind when outdoorsing. This act will surely get more action from illegal elvering still going on, possibly within eye-shot of this column.

Data point: It takes 2,000 elvers to make a pound. Last year, Maine set a 9,688 pounds limit per year. That’s almost 20 million baby American eels off to the Orient. Then, last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said it was considering increasing that total to 11,749 pounds per year. Yes, that’s the same commission that, just up above, announced, “The American eel population remains depleted in U.S. waters …”

NO TASTE FOR ELVERING: Not that many years back, when elvering was legal in New Jersey – and seemed like a good idea at even $400 a pound – I responded to the siren call of easy eel money. To my instant credit, no sooner had I landed a swimming load of glass eels than I realized such harvesting of young-of-year was a veritable species slaughter. “This is mass eelicide,” I blurted into the pitch-black Tuckerton night. Pouring my thankful captives back into the cedary water, I angrily trucked home – champing at the slimy bit to pen a letter to N.J. authorities, lambasting elver harvesting in the state. I was apparently not the only enraged eel-hugger. Laws came down faster than my released elvers had swum off. Today, you get caught elvering in N.J. and bad things will happen. How bad? That’s up for aggravating debate.

I’ll likely need some of that-there “new math” to even vaguely understand the punishment meted out upon seafood company owner Thomas Choi, a pivotal buy-point player in that big elver ring bust. Choi confessed to purchasing, selling and exporting elvers worth more than $1.5 million. He was sentenced to serve six months in prison for his role in the ring. Hypothetical show of hands: Who would at least ponder – possibly long and hard – spending six months in a white-collar prison to coddle $1.5 million? Wow, what a buncha potential criminals I have reading this column. Uh, better count me in … hypothetically, mind you.

Another up-north news story told of an elver-poaching ringleader, one Mark Green of Bath, Mass., getting fined $10,000 and sentenced to one year on probation. It was disclosed that Green trafficked over $318,000 worth of elvers … in just two years! He poached those profits via elvers taken in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Once again, I need help equating potential fines and the potential profit margins.

It’s obvious our state-protected elvers remain in a state of high-poachability. There’s a likelihood elvers will top $3,000 a pound. Japanese, the biggest eel consumers on Earth, eat 100,000 tons worth … every year. And demand is on the upswing, especially in China.

To be sure, bad guys are eyeing our elver creeks, as we speak. Here’s hoping local law enforcement knows the ropes – and keeps an osprey eye on any vehicles with New England tags hanging out near elvering creeks, especially those with vanity plates reading “EELZ” or even “Elver King.” Hey, poachers aren’t the brightest electric eels in the creek.

And, yes, we can all pitch in an eye or two.

COMPACT CONTACT: The fight against poachers of many an ilk has taken a turn for the high-tech better. New Jersey is now part of an awesome computerized offender-sharing program. It’s called the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. It now includes 48 states. All participating states instantly share the names and misdeeds of wildlife offenders. If you get nabbed illegally hunting, fishing, clamming or what-not in one Compact state, all the others know about it – in almost real time. Included in the interstate pass-ons are unpaid fines. You get nabbed in N.J. and zip back to, say, Florida, fines unpaid, your Sunshine State licenses and permits will not be renewed until you make good back here. Yes, it also does a vice versa … among all 48 Compact states.

Details found at nj.gov/dep tell, “The compact – first developed in western states in the mid-1980s – recognizes the importance of deterrence through the suspension of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses and privileges in all member states resulting from violations concerning the pursuit, possession or taking of a wide range of wildlife, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, shellfish, and crustaceans.”

I feel a bit better knowing that convicted elver poachers might initially get off lightly but should then fall under the forcefield of the Compact, which will have them squirming under an enforcement microscope. I’m betting a re-violation on the part of convicted poachers will not go as meekly punished as their first go-rounds.

I’m trying to find out if having a rap sheet with the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact carries over to all branches of law enforcement, i.e. does it also pop up during routine checks with the National Crime Information Center, aka NCIC? That’s sorta huge. Police officers pulling over someone who comes up whistle clean after a typical computer check would otherwise have no way of knowing they’re dealing with a serial poacher – thus no reason to look into a van or enclosed truck bed.

SEEING IS REPORTING: Knowing how many readers of this column are out and about outdoors, here’s hoping you’ll keep a wary eye open for any suspicious behavior near elver-holding backbay creeks.

While I’m not big on calling in every little suspicious thing I come across when outdoorsing – and such things are plentiful in my odd world – when something egregious is being done to our ecology, my cells scream out … with the help of T-Mobil. I’m not above contacting local PDs in worst-case scenarios. Slower, but eventually effective, is dialing up the likes of NJDEP’s NJ Operation Game Thief Hotline, at 855-OGT-TIPS. I’ve had good response on marine issues by dialing up Nacote Creek’s Marine Enforcement at 609-748-2050. For other environmental emergencies call the 24-hour DEP hotline at 877-WARN-DEP.

TICKS PAINFULLY APLENTY: By my highly anecdotalized spring tick count, this has become one highly tickish spring. I’ve never, ever pulled so many of those bloodsucking arachnids off my clothes and, spookily, out of my skin. Other folks who frequent tick territories concur with my findings. Now, it’s up to a science-side buddy of mine to more academically tally tick numbers. He’s big on snagging documentable calculations, establishing the population patterns of these disease-carrying ectoparasites. He’s hands-on, in as much as he gets down and dirty in the tickiest known places, some of which I guide him toward.

While such an aggravatingly high showing of bloodsuckers is bad news if only on creepy/crawly merit alone, a growing list of bad-news diseases being vectored by ticks should motivate wilderness types to practice tick-thwarting methodologies. For the down-and-dirty on ticks, check out njaes.rutgers.edu/tick. I also like tuning into tickencounter.org.

I see we have another sickness-bearing newcomer to a veritable parade of marching tick-bite maladies. Currently showing just to our south, it’s called the Heartland virus. It joins Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever as tick-borne illnesses with a homey name. Other infective tick diseases carry spookier tags, like human monocytic ehrlichiosis, human granulocytic anaplasmosis and human babesiosis.

The CDC reports that the signs and symptoms of Heartland virus infection “are similar to those of other tickborne infections and can include fever, headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and diarrhea.” Spicing up the symptoms, the CDC further reports, “There are no vaccines to prevent or medications to treat Heartland virus infections.”

Just great. With the time I spend in the outback, I’m a veritable petri dish for culturing tick sicknesses. I’ve yet to contract any, knock on woodticks.

All those un-fun, don’t-catch-it tick conditions shout “Insect repellent!” While I won’t recommend any specific insect repellents – I use military-grade DEET –  Consumer’s Report suggests three top brands: Sawyer Picaridin, Ben’s 30% Deet Tick & Insect Wilderness Formula, and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus.

Somewhat oddly, the same chemicals used to fend off mosquitoes are also best for defending against ticks.

As to skin-applied liquids, the CDC recommends using only products registered with the EPA. Those containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535 and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products are well established as the most effective active ingredients of repellents.

For clothing-based tick-terrorizing applications, it’s Permethrin all the way. I haven’t seen a better tick killer when used in higher concentrations. That said, ponder that “killing” concept. Logic alone dictates that anything toxic enough to kill a tick, sometimes for days after being applied to clothing, is not the type of stuff you want cuddling up to your skin. However – and likely quite foolishly – I’ve been known to rub a touch or two of strong-grade Permethrin in my hair. Of course, with my multi-inch rag mop, it’ll never see the light of skin.

jaymann@thesandpaper.net

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