SOLOMONS — — On a chilly morning when other watermen on the Patuxent River dredged for oysters, Jimmy Trossbach sought more slippery quarry — American eels.
"I don't know what we'll find here," Trossbach said as he guided his 45-foot workboat, Prospector, to a pair of empty plastic jugs bobbing on the water. His helper, Jake Walker, hooked the makeshift buoy and reeled in the eel pots or traps they'd set in the river two days before.
The first cylindrical mesh cage they hauled aboard pulsed with a writhing tangle of olive green. Walker dumped the eels into a wooden box with holes in its sides, and the snake-like fish slithered into a large tank of water in the center of the boat.
"People will say, 'I didn't know there were so many eels out there,'" said Trossbach, 54, who's been eeling for 26 years.
For those who think of the Chesapeake Bay as home to blue crabs, oysters and rockfish, it's a revelation to see so many eels hauled up from the depths. But appearances can be deceiving. While there seem to be a lot in Maryland waters, scientists elsewhere have concluded that the Atlantic coast's eel population has been depleted.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing a conservation group's petition to declare the American eel an endangered species, with an answer promised in 2015. Meanwhile, fisheries managers have been mulling action to curb the eel catch, which rebounded recently after a long decline.
Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees near-shore fishing along the coast, put off a decision on catch limits until May while one state, Maine, works to slash its commercial harvest of young "glass" eels. The catch there surged in recent years to cash in on a booming export market, with nearly $39 million worth of the tiny translucent juveniles being shipped abroad, mostly to Asia.
Trossbach welcomed news that Maine would scale back its harvest, saying it threatened his livelihood. He is limited by Maryland regulations to harvesting more mature "yellow" eels, which must be at least 9 inches long.
But the prices that overseas buyers pay for larger eels have plummeted, Trossbach said, as the reported harvest of glass eels from Maine soared. The baby eels can be shipped abroad more cheaply and raised there, he said, undercutting demand for his larger specimens.
"It could easily put us out of business,'' he said.
There's a lot the experts acknowledge they don't know about the American eel, but they believe its numbers are at or near historically low levels. The decline stems from a combination of factors, they say, including overfishing, damming of rivers and changing climate and ocean conditions.
Common fare in the United States and elsewhere in the past, eels have largely disappeared from American tables. They remain popular delicacies in Europe and Asia, where they're eaten stewed, fried, grilled, smoked and even jellied.
Many of Trossbach's eels get sold as bait for crabbers and anglers fishing for striped bass. But about 40 percent of his catch goes overseas for human consumption.
He is in rare company in Maryland. Some watermen go after eels when crabbing isn't in season, but the St. Mary's County resident figured he's one of a few full-time eelers. He follows them up the bay in the spring, setting his 800 pots around Baltimore in the summer, and then back south as the water cools in the fall. He fishes until Thanksgiving.
For all his years pursuing the slippery creatures, Trossbach said there's a lot about them that's still a mystery to him.
"They are strange creatures, no doubt," he said.
Eels are different from other fish, in more than just appearance. Unlike striped bass, for instance, which roam the Atlantic coast for years and then swim up the bay into fresh water to spawn, eels spend most of their lives in fresh water and spawn in the Sargasso Sea near the West Indies. Their offspring return to the coast after months adrift on ocean currents, where they change appearance as they grow, from glass eels to darker elvers to yellow eels.
They spread out through the Chesapeake and migrate inland into fresh water — at least until stopped by dams — feeding on insects, worms, small shellfish and fish. They linger for five to 20 years before transforming one more time into "silver" eels and swimming back to the Sargasso to spawn and die.
The larger yellow eels fetch $2.50 to $3 a pound, Trossbach said, while glass eels go for $2,000 a pound. Glass eels are so small, there can be two thousand or more in a pound, and Maine reported harvesting 20,000 pounds of them last year.
Maryland, by comparison, reported landing 556,000 pounds of the more mature yellow eels last year, the second largest haul since the state began tracking the commercial harvest in 1983.