Some sea food is not so good looking but tastes great. Clams, oysters, squid and a bevy of fish types come to mind. Lobsters look like humongous insects cloaked in crimson armor. Calamari is a plateful of squid tentacles, chowder is a cup of bivalve innards, and crab cakes are stuffed with the meat of one of the orneriest creatures in the sea.
While in Bali we enjoyed a meal that included what I mistook as crispy onion rings – until seeing that the rings had eyes and a distinctive grin. We were eating a local delicacy that in New England are called elvers. Sounds harmless enough – like the little guys with pointy hats dressed in green who make cookies. Not so fast. Elvers are young eels. As in that ugly fish that looks an awful lot like an obese black snake. We were eating fried eels and no, they tasted nothing like chicken.
Last spring four poachers from Maine got arrested for taking elvers out of local streams – just like our own Narrow River – and selling them for a hefty $2,500 a pound. As we learned in Bali – Asians love to eat elvers. In fact some Maine lobstermen have traded their gear for eel traps. The Department of Environmental Management considers American eels to be over harvested thus they are labeled “stressed” and so their young are protected. Mature eels are considered just another fish and it’s okay to harvest them. Apparently eels, like sharks are natural predators that do good things for the sea.
Sea gulls are predators too. Last weekend a large gull dove into the river and snagged a two foot long eel. We gagged as it pulled a deep throat maneuver and swallowed it from head to almost the tippy tail – only to repeatedly throw it up, attempt to filet it to a reasonable bite size, and gulp it down again. Both the eel and the gull appeared stressed. Half an hour later the gull with the eel visible beneath its neck, staggered off the dock with a sagging belly and haltingly flew to the marsh to digest.
Nature has much to teach us. American eels are all immigrants who can grow to over 44” long, weigh 16 pounds and live for 25 years. Uncle Sam’s eels are all born near Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea. They find their way back to the states and unless snatched from their nursery by a poacher, caught by a fisherman as bait for striped bass, or sold at the fish market for discriminating gourmets – every single one of them heads back to the Sargasso one last time to breed and lay a few million eggs.
Except of course for the one the gull got. To consumers, it wasn’t worth much – mature eels sell for $1.29 a pound at Champlains’ fish market. To environmentalists its another story about a stressed out species. But surely, the gull’s mate was impressed by his catch of the day, showed her appreciation and wound up laying a couple of eggs as the circle of life goes round and round.