By Patrick Cassidy
FALMOUTH — The Falmouth Department of Marine and Environmental Services responded to a suspected case of elver poaching Saturday, saving about 35 pounds of the young and valuable eels.
The department received a tip when a driver near a herring run saw two men who quickly left in a truck when the passer-by tried to engage them, department Deputy Director Chuck Martinsen said.
The suspicious activity prompted officials to investigate and they found a school of elvers, also known as glass eels, condensed in a fish way, making it hard for them to migrate, Martinsen said.
"We found this tremendous natural resource," he said. "The run was loaded with them and there was no possible way within that tide cycle or following tide cycle they would be able to move through."
The department is not releasing the location of the fish way, to protect the eels from future poaching.
The department, along with Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and Environmental Police, moved the eels to the undisclosed pond where they were migrating, according to a Facebook post by Department of Marine and Environment Director Gregg Fraser. If the poachers had sold the eels they would have netted about $28,000, according to Fraser.
The young eels are sold to Asian markets as an aphrodisiac, Martinsen said.
The run where the elvers were found has been poached in the past, Martinsen said, adding that last year at about the same time of year a patrol found nets and buckets in the area.
In other instances there have been reports of smaller amounts of 4 or 6 pounds of eels being taken, so to have found 35 pounds of the elvers is a big deal, Martinsen said.
"That was a significant run," he said.
The life cycle of eels — in terms of where they spawn and live — is opposite of herring, which return to rivers and ponds on Cape Cod and elsewhere to spawn but live most of their lives in the ocean.
Eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea but live in local rivers and ponds, Martinsen said.
Poaching of eels has risen in recent years because of a spike in prices.
In 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in state waters on interstate fish stocks, endorsed a report showing the American eel is at or near historically low levels from a multitude of causes, including overfishing, habitat loss, food web changes, predation, hydroelectric turbines, environmental changes, water pollution and disease.
The commission's eel board urged, given those environmental factors, that fishing be limited throughout all stages of the eel's life cycle, but particularly for the glass eel and elver phase, and the adult stage when they are migrating back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn for the one and only time in their lives.
"Both herring and elvers are very important to the ecosystem," Martinsen said. "They really are the basis to the food chains."
Anyone who spots suspicious activity near a run should call the local police department or natural resources department, Martinsen said.
Tips will remain anonymous, he said.
Although the Falmouth department tries to patrol areas where poaching may occur, it's impossible to watch everywhere at once, so it's helpful to have neighbors and passers-by keep an eye out for suspicious activity, he said.
Staff writers Ethan Genter and Doug Fraser contributed to this report.