Chesapeake eels: To some, bait

to others, an exportable delicacy


BENEDICT -- Irving Chappelear hauled a basket teeming with green eels and oozing slime out of the Patuxent River and onto the dock in this small town in Southern Maryland.

As the writhing, snakelike bodies twisted against each other, the suction made a soft squeaking noise that sounded like faint cries.

The song of the American eel has been fading for Chappelear and other watermen since the 1970s.

Eel populations have dwindled as their rivers have been blocked by dams and muddied by pollution. Demand for them has surged in Europe and Japan, where they are a delicacy.

"There has certainly been a decline in them. But there are still good numbers of eels," said Chappelear, a 55-year-old retired mechanic, as he admired his wriggling bounty.

"I've eaten them - they taste a little like catfish."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide this spring whether to classify the American eel as endangered or threatened, which could mean a ban on fishing them, said Steve Minkkinen, project leader for the agency's Annapolis office.

The case for outlawing eel traps isn't clear, but the imposition of limits is a possibility, said Keith Whiteford, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

There are no quotas today on the number of eels the 50 commercial fishermen pursuing them in the state can catch.

"Fishing pressure is obviously a major source of mortality for eels, but there are a whole array of other factors that are hurting the eels," Whiteford said.

"We also have dams blocking rivers and changing currents along the coast that may make it harder for them to get to the Chesapeake Bay."

The number of the elusive swimmers remaining isn't clear, he said.

Harvest declines

Commercial harvest has plummeted by half along the East Coast over the past 30 years. But it has been fairly stable in Maryland over the past decade, with 258,176 pounds reported caught in 2004, according to state data. The average eel sold weighs a quarter-pound and is about 14 inches long.

Few people in America eat eels, outside of sushi restaurants.

But in London, jellied eels are popular, served with lemon, onions and chili pepper.

In Dutch kitchens, they're smoked, shredded and served with red cabbage.

The creatures have an amazing life cycle.

They live much of their lives in freshwater streams, ponds and swamps, hiding in the mud by day and hunting for insects and worms at night.

They mature in eight to 24 years and then undergo a profound physical transformation. Their eyes bulge to twice their former size, skulls change shape and fins grow.

In their new bodies, they swim thousands of miles - without eating along the way - to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. Amid floating rafts of seaweed, the eels spawn, lay millions of eggs and then die.

Bait in the spring

Traditionally, watermen like Chappelear have trapped eel in April and May to use as bait during the summer crab season. The market for restaurants in Europe and Japan didn't start until about 30 years ago.

Chappelear said he'd hate to see a ban on eeling because it would cut into his income by about 15 percent.

"It would definitely hurt because I would miss out on an important bait for my crabbing," he said.

He's not a rich man. His family for 75 years ran a restaurant called Chappelear's beside the river until it was smashed by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

The eels he doesn't use as bait he tosses into barrels with ice and trucks down to Montrose, Va., where he sells them to a dealer for $2 to $2.75 a pound.

"There are not as many people running eels as before. A lot of people are just getting out of it, with the high cost of fuel," Chappelear said. "Back in the 1980s, eight people in my town caught eels. Now there are just two of us left."

The daily rounds

On a recent afternoon, he set out from the docks in this Charles County town, motoring into the choppy gray waters of the Patuxent in a 25-foot boat.

A stiff wind was blowing, the sky was brilliant blue and the trees along the shore were skeletal.

Passing under a highway bridge, he angled toward a line of buoys in about two feet of water. Gripping the wheel with one hand, he grabbed a long aluminum pole with his other.

He snagged a buoy, then pulled in a line tied to a cylindrical wire-mesh cage.

Inside, three eels thrashed. He opened the trap and dumped them into a plastic barrel, but one flipped away and squirmed across the deck.

He picked it up, dropped it, chased it, grabbed it again, wrestled with it, dropped it a second time, and finally manhandled it into the tub.

His hands glistened with slime.

"In the winter, the slime isn't so bad," he said, wiping his hands. "But in the summer, it's so sticky it's like glue."

Next to his barrel, he kept a bucket of razor clams, which he uses for eel bait. He scooped some up and put them on the gunwale, which he used like a table as he crushed the clams with the heel of his hand.

He said the mashing makes them more appetizing to eels.

Then he stuffed the mush into the cage, thrusting it through a pair of polyester funnels that serve as trapdoors. "Once they go through those, they can't go back," he said.

He tossed the trap back into the river and moved on to the next buoy.

He repeats this every day for each of his 150 pots, with the process taking about five hours.

It's a springtime ritual that his father taught him.

"My father always told me eels travel in schools," he said. "So if one goes into the pot, the whole school follows him."

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