SEABROOK, N.H. — The strange fugitive hunt that played out Friday in the vast saltmarsh between Seabrook and Hampton Falls has landed two Maine brothers in jail.
But it has also put a spotlight on the illegal practice of harvesting a tiny, slimy fish that can command upward $1,800 per pound.
Known as “elvers,” the targets of the harvest are juvenile American eels — not more than 6 inches long. And at this time of year, they migrate up rivers in large schools.
Different from the more familiar slime eels and eels used as bait by fishermen off Gloucester and Cape Ann, the elvers are thin as spaghetti and translucent — but they are a hot commodity in Japan, where they are raised in fish farms to full size and sold to consumers.
Police say the lure of that handsome price brought Matthew Kinney, 29, of Bremen, Maine, and his brother Justin, 35, of Mount Vernon, Maine, to the Hampton Falls River in an attempt to illegally catch elvers. According to Lt. Michael Eastman of New Hampshire Fish and Game, the two were spotted at around 5 a.m. by a routine Fish and Game patrol.
Both complied at first with officers, but then the situation changed. Justin fled but was quickly captured, according to Eastman. But Matthew put up a more intense struggle, assaulting an officer who was attempting to arrest him, then falling into the river and trying to flee into the marsh —reportedly with a police handcuff attached to one wrist. But after making his way across the salt marsh to the Hampton Falls Inn, where the pair had a room, Eastman said, Matthew was taken into custody as well.
Matthew Kinney faces three counts of assault and battery on police officer (felony), simple assault, resisting arrest, disobeying a conservation officer, and taking American Eels under six inches long. Bail was set at $5,000 cash.
Justin Kinney faces charges of disobeying a conservation officer, hindering apprehension, providing false information to law enforcement and taking American Eels under six inches long. Bail was set in his case at $2,500 cash. Both brothers are due to be arraigned on the charges today in Seabrook.
For over 20 years, law enforcement agencies all along the eastern seaboard have tried to rein in elver poaching. But poaching has spread widely in recent years as the price has skyrocketed.
A decade ago, elvers brought about $25 per pound. These days, fishermen could get $1,800 or more for a pound for live elvers — it takes between 3,000 and 4,000 tiny elvers to make up a pound.
A main reason for the price surge was the near destruction of the Japanese elver population due to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and a crackdown on eel harvesting in Europe. The world’s appetite for eels — a fish that generally is not eaten by Americans — has turned its attention to the East Coast.
“It’s the price that’s made it such a problem,” Eastman said. “From what I’ve heard it can range from $2,000 to $3,000 a pound. These eels are sold to the Asian market, where they are grown for food. We’ve made multiple arrests this year along the seacoast.”
Eastman said he didn’t know how many pounds of eels the brothers had taken, but they had a lot of them when captured — 2 buckets full.
Rules on elver fishing vary from state to state, but they cannot be legally harvested in either New Hampshire or Massachusetts; in fact, they can only be legally harvested with permits in Maine and South Carolina.
Even with the licensing system in place, poaching in Maine has become front page news. Last month, authorities arrested a New Hampshire man who had 41 pounds of illegally-caught elvers, with a street value that exceeded $80,000.
Eels have an unusual, and somewhat mysterious, life cycle.
They are believed to spawn in the Sargasso Sea, a vast, oblong-shaped region of the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The ocean there has long been viewed by mariners as a mysterious place, covered in spots by the Sargassum seaweed from which its name derives.
At the age of 2 or 3, elvers migrate en masse from the Sargasso Sea to the East Coast, swimming up rivers to brackish and freshwater areas. Here they live to become adults, then swim back into the ocean, and back to the Sargasso Sea, to spawn.