In Taiwan’s Waters, a Hunt for Tiny, Wriggling ‘Gold’
The hunters waded into the water after dark, their headlights glowing as they threw their nets into the crashing waves.
All night long, they shook the filth from their nets, sorting through their rewards: wispy, transparent baby eels, each no thicker than a vermicelli thread. They’re worth their weight in gold, or so. Fishermen drop them into jars of water, some of them hanging from their necks by ropes.
“Sometimes it’s gold, sometimes it’s dirt,” said Dai Chia-sheng, who spent a decade catching glass eels over the winter. Brought in by currents every year, the eels have lured families like Mr. Dai to the shores of Taiwan for generations.
“We used to see the industry profitable, but now more and more people are skeptical,” Dai said.
Around the world, there are far fewer eels than there used to be. Conservationists say the most commonly traded species of eel is endangered. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, their numbers have declined due to overfishing, loss of riparian habitat for development, and more recently climate change, said Han Yu-shan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. National Taiwan said. Institute of Fisheries Science at National Taiwan University.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan’s eel industry thrived thanks to the Japanese demand for unagi. There are years when exports to Japan alone have reached 600 million USD. But the days are gone.
In 2022, Taiwan only exported a total of $58 million in eels. China vast deep water fleet has been accused of endangering fish stocks worldwide, which has long eclipsed Taiwan as the main source of Japanese eel imports.
Professor Han said while the effects of global warming on eels have not been well studied, fishermen in Taiwan think changes in temperature affect the tides they catch.
“The warmer the sea, the lower the fish swim,” which makes them harder to catch, said Kuo Chou-in, 68, president of the Taiwan Eel and Shrimp Exporters Association..
Fishermen like Mr. Dai sell their eels to wholesalers along the Lanyang River in Yilan County, who easily recognize signs that say ‘eel accepted’. Wholesalers pay up to $40 per gram – gold is about $63 for the same amount – for about six eels per gram.
From there, they go to aquaculture farms, where they are raised until adulthood. (To protect dwindling stocks, Taiwan has banned the export of glass eels during the winter fishing season, but many people are leaked out as part of a global, multi-billion dollar black market.)
Before being flown to Japan and other countries, the final stop of adult eels in Taiwan is a packing factory, where they are packed in thick ice packs. Ms. Kuo, the president of the export association, owns one of those factories, in the northern city of Taoyuan.
She is a rare woman in a male-dominated industry. One winter evening, she struts across her factory floor in high heels, talking on the phone to customers and occasionally dipping her hands in crates to catch slithering eels and sort them into streams. .
Ms. Kuo started her career at the age of 21 at a Japanese import and export company specializing in eels. She caught a glimpse of them for the first time as an interpreter, during a field visit at a packaging factory. She was fascinated by how the workers, using only their hands, caught the eels and accurately assessed their weight.
After 17 years at the company, Kuo lost his job when Japan’s bubble economy collapsed. She started her own business in 1992, spent all her savings and mortgaged two properties to buy factory equipment. She said she slept in her car for years.
In the end, frugality and hustle led to a more luxurious lifestyle. Ms. Kuo currently drives a convertible and has been mentioned by the Taiwanese media (dubbed the “eel queen”). She once appeared on a Japanese TV show to cook samples of her products for the judges.
“The Taiwanese eels won the competition,” she recalls with a laugh. “Our eel is the best.”
The charm is harder to find in the frequently polluted estuaries, where glass eels are caught. Fishermen stand for hours, casting basket-like nets up and down the water, or they swim out after strapping themselves to metal anchors on the beach.
Chen Chih-chuan, a part-time technician, said he almost died once while swimming for eels. “It took my strength to pull the rope. I gave up and floated in the sea,” he recalls while resting along the Lanyang River.
“I am older and more experienced now,” said Mr. Chen, who wears a green rubber full body suit and yellow boots. “I wouldn’t push myself to that extent.” He jumped back to the waves.
Mr. Chen said he made $8,000 this season – an amount he’s pleased with, albeit a drop from previous years.
Eel prices plummeted during the pandemic, as restaurants closed and global shipping was disrupted.
Chang Shi-ming, 61, caught eels in his youth near the city of Changhua on Taiwan’s west coast. In the early 1990s, a large petrochemical plant sprang up there. Smoke and steam rose from many chimneys, coating the nearby lawn with white dust. The harvest has never been the same, he said.
“We have seen too much damage over the years,” Mr. Chang said. “There are very few eels this year.” At least that’s what he heard; About 20 years ago, Mr. Chang switched to clam farming with minimal effort.
His eldest son worked at a petrochemical plant. “It’s just a job,” Mr. Chang said.
Chiang Kai-te, 43, a part-time construction worker, spent years doing odd jobs when the success of a friend convinced him to try eel fishing. He left his hometown for a village by the Lanyang River. He only sees his 4-year-old son and his parents on weekends when they visit.
The job proved difficult to master and the nightly catch was unpredictable, ranging from 10 to 100 baby eels. On a recent outing, he caught less than 20.
“It’s hard to make money,” said Mr. Chiang, collapsing to the ground from exhaustion. “My whole family relies on me.” He said he was on the verge of quitting.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable to continue doing this,” he said.
Nearby, half a dozen retirees were happily roasting chicken wings around a small hole. They are members of the Amis tribe, one of Taiwan’s indigenous ethnic groups.
Eel fishing is not an Amis tradition, but the friends have spent their winters in Yilan County for a decade, camping in tents with wooden doors. After fishing, they would open beer and talk happily until late at night.
“We are here not only to fish for eels but to spend time with friends,” said Wuving Vayan, 58, who is using a dirty flotation device as a makeshift stool. “It was one of the happiest moments of a year.”
“We cannot control climate changes,” she added. “All we can do is pray for good weather and good crops.”