When the selling was good, Yang doubled his money, but more often than not he had to accept a modest profit. "This is a very big business, very risky," he said. If the price for adult eels fell during the 14 to 18 months it took to raise a glass eel for market, his Chinese buyer could go bankrupt. "One year the farm sells high—they all drive Mercedes-Benzes," Yang said. "Next year price falls—they're riding bicycles."
Before he went into eels, Yang was in the lucrative business of selling shark fins in China for soup. He says he quit when he saw dolphins, caught accidentally on longline hooks, being dragged aboard ship, beaten to death, and thrown back into the sea. "When they take the dolphins on the ship," Yang said, "you know they're weeping—you can see the tears." He put his hand over his heart. "When I look at eels, I feel good. When they move, they look very nice."
Like Jonathan Yang, I get a good feeling from eels. The times I've spent with them, especially during the fall migration, have pulsed with energy. Standing in Ray Turner's weir on a cool September night on the eve of the new moon, watching veinlike ropes of eels fill his womb of wood and stone, I could almost believe the Maori's yarns about encounters they've had with the taniwha—the water guardian or monster. For many indigenous people throughout the Polynesian Islands, the eel is a god that replaces the archetypal snake in creation myths, an important source of food, and an erotic symbol—the word many islanders use for eel, tuna, is synonymous with "penis." In one Maori myth, eels come from the sky, having fallen when the heavens became too hot and inhospitable for them. On Earth, some Maori say, the movements of eels make the rivers flow. The eel is integral to everything.
We allow ourselves to believe we can understand nature by organizing and explaining it through systems of taxonomy and computerized studies of genes and DNA, fitting everything into neat categories. With each passing year, researchers peer deeper into the hidden lives of eels; in 2006 and again in 2008, scientists released adult eels from the west coasts of Ireland and France outfitted with pop-up tags, hoping to track them to the Sargasso Sea. But "knowledge," as we amass it (ever available, at our fingertips), can hinder imagination and the wonder that can come from our own observation. Eels—with their simplicity of form, their preference for darkness, their gracefulness—have helped me embrace the unnameable and get to the essence of experience, that which cannot be cataloged or quantified. They have been my way back.
The immense pressures on eels today will test their ability to adapt and survive. A Maori bush guide named Daniel Joe spoke of the staying power of eels as we sat by a campfire on the Waipunga River. "He's an old fish, and he's absolutely relentless," Joe said. "The eel is morehu," a survivor. "I think they will be there till the end of the world as we know it."
I hope he's right.