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11/28/2010

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Ross

How we hated those eels when I was kid fishin on Maryland's South River. Worse even than the Toadfish, and God knows the Toadfish was one fish that was hard to like.

The eels would tangle and slime your line to the point you'd have to cut it. We'd sometimes salt them for crab bait, but mostly they'd get thrown back with a curse.

I was about 20 when I figured out they were delightful on the plate. By then I was pretty well finished fishing the Chesapeake.

Hearing they're gone brings a sadness for days gone by. I'd love to sit again under that old bridge and get all tangled up with a nasty old eel.

As it turns out, I was hunting the Marin coastline today, looking for a likely place to try poke poling for the Monkeyface.

Finesmell

Ross - while Atlantic eels' numbers in the Chesapeake watershed have seriously dwindled, they're far from gone; I saw quite a few this summer, in some tributaries of the Potomac. Still, the point remains: their future is precarious.

Unfortunately, Chesapeake watermen have had a double incentive to pursue eel - the demand in the Asian market for Atlantic eel picked up around the same time that the decline in the blue crab and oyster populations took a sharp turn for the worse. Eels saved more than a few watermen from bankruptcy during that period. Since the blue crab population recently rebounded, one would hope that it might take some of the pressure off of the eels ... but I kinda doubt it. As you probaby know, the powers that be have hardly made a dent in the Chesapeake's pollution problems, and the crab rebound may thus prove to be a fluke. And have fun trying to get a significant number of consumers to boycott unagi.

Cheery stuff, eh?

bob a

I loves me some unagi - damn! Years ago my dad's friend who owned a sushi bar tried telling me and my old man he had a technique for cooking the common farm raised catfish that made it able to be passed off as unagi to the unsophisticated masses. This is the same guy who had my old man build him a 'shrimp extruder' to squeeze and stretch out small shrimp so that with enough tempura batter on them they looked like jumbo prawns. My dad has since passed away and I'm not in contact with the sketchy sushiman, but I'm thinking it can't be that tricky to develop a eco-alternative to the real deal. Work on that ok?

Ross

Finesmell - I'm pleased to report that the last couple years have shown more bay life in Selby bay where my family still has a house. Loads of spot, baby blue fish, and ample blue crabs have replaced that carp that had moved in. Missing still are the vast beds of seaweed that harbored so many grass shrip, gars, eel, and stuff I never figured out what it was.

We used to push a shrimp roller net and catch all kinds of cool critters. I'm not sure you can still buy those. I might try to make one.

Tonosama

I find it funny how everyone laments the decline of the eel or blue crab or shrimp but then fondly recounts the numerous times they went and caught oodles of them. I guess they don't realize that they contributed to the decline. I guess they figure they don't eat enought to have an affect and that is right, they don't, not as one single person. However neither does one single evil unagi eating asian. Millions of Americans and Asians later they are almost extinct. Guess finger pointing is more fun.

kirk lombard

Yeah, well "I find it funny" how some people can not see how important differences in scale can be. Nevertheless, I will respond to this. I would be willing to bet that the entire cumulative recreational harvest for one decade of American eel fishing, does not equal the catch from a single day of modern commercial harvesting. Those harvested eels are sent off to farms in China, Taiwan and Japan to be reared for one purpose: unagi. Thousands of acres of coastal wetland have been cleared to build these farms. Most of these farms would be deemed gross polluters in the States, and have devastating effects on their ecosystems. What is more, eels taken from the mouths or their native rivers are summarily removed from the breeding population--and so even the unsupportable claim that most fish farmers make: "at least we're taking pressure off of wild stocks" can not be made for eel farmers. They are depleting the wild stocks at an unprecedented rate.

For hundreds of years recreational fishermen and even subsistence fishermen harvested eels with very little effect on eel populations. Likewise, unagi was a specialty dish sold in a few Japanese restaurants that had a minimum effect on wild populations. Then the sushi craze hit in the eighties. Now we have unagi at Safeway. So really this has nothing to do with "one evil unagi eating Asian," which you suggest (don't think I can't read between the lines on that by the way). Eel populations can withstand limited commercial, artisinal, subsistence and recreational harvest, within legal limits--they have proven this for centuries. What they can not withstand, and really what few creatures can, is the type of industrial harvesting that is currently going on. Industrial harvesting that is meant to meet the needs of a vast, totally unsustainable, taste for unagi that is global at this point and hardly only meant for "evil unagi eating Asians" alone. This is so obvious as to be silly to have to point out.

It is an unassailable fact that the decline of the American eel is due to the human predilection for unagi. To argue this, or to make comparisons between the kind of harvesting that is done by kids under piers with hooks and lines on one side and the kind of commercial harvesting that occurs at the mouths of American rivers on the other, is to obscure the point and shift the blame, and I think, largely to make an excuse for continued eating of the stuff. Bon apetit!

Go ahead, point the finger at me. It's true, I used to catch a lot of eels with hook and line... Meanwhile, as you point the finger at me, the species is being driven to extinction--not by recreational harvesting for personal consumption but by global demand.

Your point is kind of like someone standing on a pile of buffalo tongues being shipped to market in 1876, saying: "blame the indians, they killed buffalo too."

And the sad thing is, unagi is mostly about the sauce. Right now progressive restaurants like Tataki in SF and Bun Lai's restaurant in Connecticut are serving sustainable alternatives to unagi, and making great strides. So i'm by no means alone in condemning this fishery. And many of the people who are fighting to combat it are non-evil Asians and non Asians inside the industry.

If sardines, anchovies, or herring could be used to replace eels, the oceans would be a lot better off. Forage fishes, obviously, are designed by evolution to withstand massive industrial predation (to a point) eels aren't... not until we can figure out a way to farm them without robbing juveniles from the mouths of rivers.

Anyhoo. That's my response. Have a nice day.

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