Inside the secret, million-dollar world of baby eel trafficking
Undercover Canadian government operation highlights global concerns around smuggling to feed Asian demand
In the parking lot of an Irving gas station in Aulac, N.B., not far from the Nova Scotia border, Curtis Kiley popped the trunk of a Toyota Corolla.
Inside was a white bucket containing what looked like a giant hairball, the type that might be pulled from a bathtub drain.
Except it was alive — a wriggling, slithering mess.
This was just an initial sample Kiley had brought to show a prospective black-market buyer, a woman he knew only through text message as "Danielle."
He was ultimately hoping to unload up to 300 kilograms of the tiny creatures, a huge haul worth $1.3 million on the open market, but one he was offering at a steep discount.
Moments later, Kiley's world turned from dollar signs to handcuffs. He'd been nabbed in a federal fisheries sting, one targeting poaching in a little-known but enormously lucrative industry that plays out each spring in Nova Scotia's rivers and brooks.
At the centre of the undercover operation by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in May 2018 was the most unlikely of creatures — baby eels.
"It is one of the bigger [eel] cases that I've seen in my career," said Chris Sperry, DFO's acting chief of conservation and protection in southwest Nova Scotia.
The innocuous little fish at the heart of this poaching case, the details of which have not been previously reported, has in recent years become the centre of international smuggling schemes worth tens of millions of dollars and that stretch from Europe to New England.
It's also become a global conservation headache, as the price for baby eels — also called elvers or glass eels — has skyrocketed in the bid to supply fish farms in Asia, where they are grown to market size to satisfy the huge appetite for eating eel in places like Japan.
The money involved is only rivalled by the extraordinary life cycle of the species, known in North America as American eel.
Every year, billions of eggs hatch in the Sargasso Sea, a vast expanse of water and floating seaweed in the north Atlantic, adjacent to Bermuda. Over a year, larvae resembling minuscule willow leaves drift along in the Gulf Stream to destinations spanning from the Caribbean to Greenland.
By spring, they have become tiny eels, and millions swim the final stretch through brackish estuaries to rivers in Nova Scotia. Here they will mature into adult American eels and spend between four and 40 years, before finally returning to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
"It's quite an amazing story," said Rod Bradford, an aquatic biologist with DFO who provides science advice on the status of American eel in the Maritimes.
It's during that spring run that dozens of fishermen in Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick, working under nine tightly regulated licences, set their nets in the dark to catch upwards of seven tonnes of elvers.
Eels are difficult to breed in captivity, which means aquaculture facilities in Asia must depend on "seed" stock. The elvers that are legally fished in the Maritimes are packed in a little water, chilled in ice and put on airplanes to China.
When they reach market size, they are split down the back, gutted and often fried into a dish called kabayaki. It is particularly popular in Japan, which accounts for 70 per cent of the world's eel consumption.
In the early years, following the first licences in the 1980s, fishing for elvers in Nova Scotia generated little more than cottage-industry income, as little as $25 a kilogram. By 2006, the price sat at about $110.
But in 2010, Europe banned the export of elvers following a 20-year crash in population that led to the European eel being declared critically endangered.
As supply declined, elver prices shot up. By 2015, the elvers in the Maritimes were being sold for an astonishing $4,685 a kilogram. Last year's price kept pace at $4,500.
A burgeoning black market has followed.
Jennifer Ford, DFO's regional manager for resource management, said the implications of that are significant. There's been a recommendation to list the American eel as threatened in Canada, following declines in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River area. A decision has been pending for several years.
As a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Canada must show it has control over the elver fishery or could face export restrictions that would shut down the industry.
"At this point we feel that the species is sustainably managed and that the fishery is going well," Ford said in an interview. "But there are risks if we can't demonstrate that fishery is being managed sustainably."
And things can quickly get out of hand.
In Maine, poaching became such a problem that last year, the state was forced to shut down the fishery early. Dozens of people have been charged in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation called Operation Broken Glass. Some have even gone to prison.
Last year, Spanish and Portuguese police busted a smuggling ring they say was preparing to send five tonnes of baby eels to China in 364 suitcases.
European police believe as much as 100 tonnes of elvers were illegally exported in 2018, in what the conservation group Sustainable Eel Group calls "one of the planet's greatest wildlife crimes."
"That's a cautionary tale," said Genna Carey, an elver fisherman in Nova Scotia and the president of the Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery. "We don't want to be there."
The legal elver industry in Nova Scotia remains guarded. Carey, for instance, is reluctant to detail fishing techniques, worried it will provide a blueprint to poachers.
And they are out there. The local elver world is a small one, so it's easy to know who's an outlier. Given elver fishing is done in remote areas and at night, when the creatures are on the move, there are also safety concerns about bumping into poachers in the dark.
When Kiley was sentenced earlier this month, federal prosecutor Derek Schnare called the case "a very serious regulatory crime with far-reaching consequences," one that amounted to "the black market destruction of the fishery."
Kiley, 31, who has a criminal record that includes drug and weapons offences and aggravated assault, had been on the radar of fisheries officers long before the undercover operation that targeted him. The season before, both he and his brother had been under surveillance and charged for illegal elver fishing.
In April 2017, according to an agreed statement of facts at his sentencing, the pair smashed the window of a former Esso station in Sable River, N.S. Getting inside, they then hauled off 20 kilograms of elvers being stored there, and that had been legally fished under the licence of Waycobah First Nation in Cape Breton.
RCMP and fisheries officers later searched a property in Shelburne, charged the brothers and retrieved 17 kilograms of elvers.
"It's a very lucrative business, is all I can tell you, for a very few people," said Brian Decker, owner of the building that was broken into.
"And that's where the problem comes in. Lots of money for just a handful of people, and other people want to get in onto it and they can't because it's controlled by the fisheries, for licensing and whatnot."
The next season, DFO kept a close eye on Kiley and a small group seen fishing in a brook off the LaHave River in Nova Scotia's Lunenburg County. It included his common-law wife, a member of the Acadia First Nation in southern Nova Scotia.
Kiley is not Indigenous, and Schnare told the court he had been poaching under "the guise" of his partner's food, social and ceremonial fishery licence.
On May 8, 2018, using the email address email@example.com, Kiley contacted two people in the elver industry, asking if they wanted to buy. Both were suspicious, and the emails were forwarded to DFO.
Two weeks later, federal fisheries officers set up their sting. One contacted Kiley by text, posing as a buyer named Danielle looking to ship elvers to Hong Kong. She was in Toronto, but would return to New Brunswick in a week.
"Well, I live in Halifax and wanna meet up with soon as u get back, and well we got a couple different groups doing it and all of us together got around 250kgz," Kiley wrote in one text, later upping the amount to 250 to 300 kilograms.
He even offered to inquire about a "dummy company" to handle the money, and said he would sell the elvers for just $1,500 a kilogram, about a third the price of the legal market but one that would still net hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When he was arrested, Kiley had about 300 grams of elvers. DFO remains circumspect about what happened to the remaining 250-300 kilograms. A spokesperson said it cannot divulge that information as a co-accused who was allegedly with Kiley when he met the undercover officer will be going on trial next month.
Kiley ultimately pleaded guilty to various fisheries and criminal charges. He was sentenced to $17,500 in fines and two years probation, and was given five months in jail for the break-in and another case involving a stolen car.
As part of a pre-sentence report, he told a probation officer he'd faced financial problems and been motivated by money. He suggested police had been "picking on him."
There is one remarkable aspect to the sentence. For two years, Kiley is barred from being within 20 metres of any inland waterway, except if he's driving by.
"First time I've seen an order like that," said Sperry, with DFO enforcement.
Last week, on a river near Chester, N.S., fisheries technicians from the non-profit Coastal Action unlocked a series of boxes wedged under a bridge and scooped out elvers, to be weighed and measured before being released upstream.
The work has gone on for more than two decades and represents one of the longest-running elver "recruitment" studies in North America. The numbers help dictate quotas for the local fishery and determine which rivers can be fished.
In recent years, between two million and four million elvers each spring climb have climbed this waterway, which means the news, at least in Nova Scotia, is good.
"The indications are that we have moved beyond the low point in eel abundance, at least here in the region," said Bradford.