National Geographic : 2010 Sep
Eels cook over a beech and oak fire at Dutchman Alex Koelewijn's smokehouse. They melt in your mouth like fine chocolate, he says. "It's the oily and smoky taste that gives the most joy." , I get a good feeling from eels. e times I've spent with them, especially during the fall migration, have pulsed with energy. Standing in Ray Turner's weir on a cool September night on the eve of the new moon, watching veinlike ropes of eels ll his womb of wood and stone, I could almost believe the Mao- ri's yarns about encounters they've had with the taniwha---the water guardian or monster. For many indigenous people throughout the Poly- nesian Islands, the eel is a god that replaces the archetypal snake in creation myths, an impor- tant source of food, and an erotic symbol---the word many islanders use for eel, tuna, is syn- onymous with "penis." In one Maori myth, eels come from the sky, having fallen when the heav- ens became too hot and inhospitable for them. On Earth, some Maori say, the movements of eels make the rivers flow. The eel is integral to everything. We allow ourselves to believe we can under- stand nature by organizing and explaining it through systems of taxonomy and computerized studies of genes and DNA, tting everything into neat categories. With each passing year, research- ers peer deeper into the hidden lives of eels; in 2006 and again in 2008, scientists released adult eels from the west coasts of Ireland and France out tted with pop-up tags, hoping to track them to the Sargasso Sea. But "knowledge," as we amass it (ever available, at our ngertips), can hinder imagination and the wonder that can come from our own observation. Eels---with their simplicity of form, their preference for darkness, their grace- fulness---have helped me embrace the unnameable and get to the essence of experience, that which cannot be cataloged or quanti ed. ey have been my way back. The immense pressures on eels today will test their ability to adapt and survive. A Maori bush guide named Daniel Joe spoke of the stay- ing power of eels as we sat by a camp re on the Waipunga River. "He's an old sh, and he's abso- lutely relentless," Joe said. " e eel is morehu," a survivor. "I think they will be there till the end of the world as we know it." I hope he's right. j glass eels crashed, the price for American glass eels brie y 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 ship- ment from Boston to Hong Kong, live, in plastic bags lled with oxygenated water and packed in foam containers. Until recently, Jonathan Yang, a dealer from Taiwan, was the middle- man 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. When the selling was good, Yang doubled his money, but more o en than not he had to accept a modest profit. "This is a very big business, very risky," he said. If the price for adult eels fell during the 14 to 18 months it took to raise a glass eel for market, his Chinese buyer could go bankrupt. "One year the farm sells high---they all drive Mercedes-Benzes," Yang said. "Next year price falls---they're riding bicycles." Before he went into eels, Yang was in the lucrative business of selling shark ns in China for soup. He says he quit when he saw dolphins, caught accidentally on longline hooks, being dragged aboard ship, beaten to death, and thrown back into the sea. "When they take the dolphins on the ship," Yang said, "you know they're weeping---you can see the tears." He put his hand over his heart. "When I look at eels, I feel good. When they move, they look very nice."