In the U.S. during the 1970s, when aquaculture farms were burgeoning in China, eel fishing to supply the Asian market went on pell-mell from January through June in every East Coast state. Pat Bryant of Nobleboro, Maine, was one of the first in the state to catch glass eels for export to China. By day she ran a hairdressing salon in the coastal town of Damariscotta, and at night, to make a little extra money, she went down to the mouth of the Pemaquid River to check her nets.
The commercial operation in Maine grew explosively from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, when the more than 1,500 fishers with permits could each make several thousand dollars a night at the dock for their catch. People began stealing and vandalizing nets and pulling .357 Magnums to stake out or preserve fishing territories. In one creek, fishermen had a net called the green monster. "It went clear across the river," Bryant said in her raspy voice, ashing her cigarette in a scallop shell. "It was a goddamn fiasco." She and a few others appealed to the state, "just out of our own preservation." Today the allowable eel take in Maine—the state with the most active fishery—is restricted to a few locations and a short season, from March 22 to May 31.
In 1997 record-low catches of prized Japanese glass eels sent prices soaring—a single kilo (2.2 pounds), about 5,000 of them, sold for as much as $16,500, making eel more valuable at the time than gold. When the supply of Japanese glass eels crashed, the price for American glass eels briefly increased tenfold—the eel gold rush, as Bryant calls it. Japanese connoisseurs weren't happy. "American eels are not as tasty," Shoichiro Kubota, who runs a 120-year-old eel restaurant in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, told me. (His father was eel handler to Emperor Hirohito.) "Even the French eels are not as good—like American cherries. Not as tasty. We like our native things."
Bryant buys glass eels from fishermen up and down the Maine coast and babysits them in tanks near her home until they're ready for shipment from Boston to Hong Kong, live, in plastic bags filled with oxygenated water and packed in foam containers. Until recently, Jonathan Yang, a dealer from Taiwan, was the middleman between Bryant and eel farmers in China and Taiwan, buying eels from her by the kilo and selling them by the piece, or individual eel. He paid cash, typically wiring a million dollars to a bank in Maine at the end of the season.