From a Caribbean Island to Sushi Plates: The Million-dollar Business of Eel Fishing

eel fishing at night
El Espectador
,
Nagua, Dominican Republic

From a Caribbean Island to Sushi Plates: The Million-dollar Business of Eel Fishing

In Nagua, a small coastal town in the Dominican Republic, flashlights and batteries are in short supply during the last months of the year. At dawn, walkers and bikers flood the streets. Some carry strange, homemade green mesh nets on their backs. Others, strainers.

All of them walk toward the beaches close to the mouth of the Nagua River. Until dawn, soaked from head to toe, they look like hundreds of lighthouses announcing their destination to a ship. 

"What we're looking for," says 18-years-old Darling Tineo, "are eels."

Fishing for baby eels, translucent and elusive fish smaller than a pinky, has become the main economic activity for this island nation. At times, it has been the only source of work for the nearly 80,000 inhabitants of Nagua, where 43% of households live in poverty

glass eel on a hand
A baby eel, or glass eel, caught by a Dominican fishermen in Nagua / Credit: Óscar Güesguán, El Espectador.

Because the market depends on fish that haven't reached adulthood, an unprecedented demand—fueled by Asia's economic development and the worldwide popularization of its food—is driving the species to the brink of extinction. With an annual consumption of 130,000 tons or 70 percent of global production, Japan is the main destination.

Starting in the 1980s, when the continent's eel population dwindled, Asia became an importer of European (Anguilla anguilla), American and Caribbean eels (Anguilla rostrata). By the 2000s, the European eels population had dropped by 95 percent. In 2009, international trade was regulated. In 2010, after being declared critically endangered, the European Union banned all trade of European eels.

Since then, the Americas and the Caribbean have become the world's eel pantry. Exports to Asia increased from two tons in 2004 to 47 tons in 2013. Consequently, the Anguilla rostrata is now critically endangered: its population has halved in 36 years. Yet no international agreement protects them.

Because the market depends on fish that haven't reached adulthood, an unprecedented demand—fueled by Asia's economic development and the worldwide popularization of its food—is driving the species to the brink of extinction. With an annual consumption of 130,000 tons or 70 percent of global production, Japan is the main destination.

Starting in the 1980s, when the continent's eel population dwindled, Asia became an importer of European (Anguilla anguilla), American and Caribbean eels (Anguilla rostrata). By the 2000s, the European eels population had dropped by 95 percent. In 2009, international trade was regulated. In 2010, after being declared critically endangered, the European Union banned all trade of European eels.

Since then, the Americas and the Caribbean have become the world's eel pantry. Exports to Asia increased from two tons in 2004 to 47 tons in 2013. Consequently, the Anguilla rostrata is now critically endangered: its population has halved in 36 years. Yet no international agreement protects them.

A slippery market

glass eels
Glass eels are are packaged in brand new 30 gallon clear plastic bags. Each bag contains approximately one kilo of live baby eels / Credit: Eladio Fernández. 

At the beach, each eel gram—about seven baby eels—is paid in cash. Each kilo (about two pounds) can cost up to 250,000 Dominican pesos, almost $4,400. Before being shipped abroad, it reaches $8,000. Upon arrival in Japan, it can cost more than $12,000 (In 2018, one kilo reached $35,000, according to Japanese media.)

No sign reads "We buy eels," but everyone knows where to go. The buyers, who work for the owner of the legal exploitation license, wait patiently under a nearby tree or in makeshift booths. They are the last visible face of a hazy supply chain. They generally stay until six in the morning, when the last fisherman comes out of the water. Military or policemen escorts them to protect the product.

Only the license owner's inner circle knows where the eels go once they leave the beach. They arrive at secretly-located warehouses surrounded by armed guards. Then, they are weighed, packed in bags with water and pure oxygen, and stored in coolers filled with ice blocks to lull them during their journey abroad.

About 79% of Dominican eel exports go to Canada, 19.8% to Hong Kong, and 1% to the United States, according to local newspapers. "But their final destination is Japan and the Asian market," says Carlos Then, director of Codopesca, the nation's fisheries authority. There, after spending a year in "fattening farms," they'll be big enough to be eaten.   

eel fishers with their nets
Hundreds, sometimes a thousand, fishermen gather around the Nagua river mouth for five months of the year seeking to catch glass eels / Credit: Óscar Güesguán, El Espectador.

"A business equal to drugs"

Nobody says it publicly, but it is an open secret: important spheres of power are involved at the top of the business, usually linked to exports. A New York Times investigation into the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse shows that the magnicide could be linked to eel and drug trafficking in that country, the other half of the Hispaniola island.

"An industry that is not entirely clear and clean has developed, and the black market has a big impact on it," Then says. 

Constant disputes over price between buyers and fishers created room for illegality. When legal buyers lower prices, fishers look for someone who would pay more––even if that means working in faraway beaches, says Vaqueró, a Nagua fisherman. 

The country has no official statistics on the catch at each legal eel fishing site. There's no biological or environmental impact study. It is also unknown how many eel fishermen there are in the country. The only available data is on legal exports. 

hands holding money
At the beach, each eel gram (about seven baby eels) is paid in cash / Credit: Eladio Fernández. 

Unlike Nagua, where anyone can fish, eel fishing is tightly controlled in other areas of the Dominican north coast. Armed "supervisors" are stationed around some of the 86 rivers authorized for fishing to ensure that the fishermen do not steal the product to sell it outside at a better price.

Eels that make it into the black market can either cross over to Haití, where exports are not as highly regulated; or they can end up in the hands of licensed Dominican exporters, who manage to pass them off as legal merchandise in the absence of good controls at local airports, say Then. In fact, despite a live-eel export quota limit of 2,500 kilos, the country exported 2,898 kilos in 2018 and 3,840 kilos in 2019, according to official data.

"If the pressure remains this high, we're going to see a critically endangered animal fairly soon," assures illegal-trafficking expert and biologist Diego Cardeñosa. "But abolishing this fishery would have a very high impact on local people's livelihoods and could boost the illegal market." It is necessary to focus on sustainable management to find a solution, he says.

"It is said that, practically, this is a business equal to drugs," says Vaqueró, who has been fishing for seven years. "And it makes sense because this moves a lot of money."

This video (in Spanish) illustrates how the glass eel fishery has become the only economic alternative for many inhabitants in Nagua, driving eel species to the brink of extinction / Credit: El Espectador. 


This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was originally published in El Espectador on 8 January 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Dominican Glass Eel Fishermen in Nagua, a small coastal town in the Dominican Republic. The need for money entices many poor people, who weren’t even fishermen, to start eel fishing / Credit: Óscar Güesguán, El Espectador. 

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