Maine Seafood Guide – Eel
American eel Anguilla rostrata
also known as elver, glass eel, unagi
Wild and farm-raised (outside of Maine) from wild-caught juveniles.
American eel is a catadromous fish, which means it spends most of its life in freshwater but migrates to the ocean to reproduce. In the case of the eel, sexually immature adult “yellow” eels live in lakes and rivers and, after anywhere from three to twenty years, migrate downstream in fall as “silver” eels to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. The adults die, and eventually the juveniles, known as glass eels or elvers, find their way into rivers along the Atlantic coast. Elvers are shipped overseas, primarily to Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds into adults to be sold live, fresh, and frozen.
There are three distinct fisheries for eels in Maine which relate to three different life stages: A spring (March-May) glass eel/elver fishery; a year-round yellow eel fishery; and a fall (September-November) silver eel fishery.
From a biological perspective, much is still unknown about American eels. Information is limited about their abundance, status at all life stages, and habitat requirements. In 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed American eel as “Endangered” on the Red List; a recent review by NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the American eel is stable and does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act. Nonetheless, for the species’ long-term stability, the agency recommends continuing efforts to maintain healthy habitats, monitor harvest levels, and improve river passage for migrating eels.
In October 2014, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission amended the interstate fishery management plan for American eel. Addendum IV set a 907,671pound coastwide quota for yellow eel fisheries, and reduced Maine’s glass eel quota to 9,688 pounds (2014 landings). State legislation in 2014 established an elver transaction “swipe” card system and dealer reporting of elver weight and price monitored by the DMR to ensure the state does not exceed its quota. See Maine DMR eel page for the latest updates.
Elvers are caught in tidal streams with hand-held dip nets or fyke nets, funnel-shaped nets of fine mesh placed along shore and facing downstream. Dealers buy elvers from individual fishermen and ship them to Asia. Yellow eels are caught with fyke nets and eel pots. Silver eels are trapped with weirs across streams, rivers, and lake outlets. See the vessel and gear guide for more information.
A person may take for personal use up to 25 eels (minimum size 9 inches) per day from the coastal waters of the state by spear gun, harpoon, trap, or hook and line.
Eel is higher in fat and calories but lower in omega-3 fatty acids than other seafood choices. Eel is high in vitamin A.
Average mercury levels in American eel have not been established. Eels fall about in the middle of the food chain, and the relative concentrations of mercury and other potentially toxic chemicals will reflect the conditions of where an eel was raised or caught.
Most eel available in Maine restaurants is imported fresh and frozen from China, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Portugal. Eel is called unagi in sushi restaurants. Eels can be smoked, grilled, fried, or baked. Traditional or historic preparations include jellied eels in Europe, eel chowder, and smoked eel.