The hunters waded into the water after darkish, their headlamps beaming as they tossed nets into the crashing waves over and over.
All evening, they shook muck from the nets, checking out their prizes: wriggling, clear child eels, every no thicker than a vermicelli noodle. They have been value their weight in gold, or almost. The fishermen dropped them into jars of water, which a few of them hung round their necks on string.
“Generally it’s gold, typically it’s dust,” stated Dai Chia-sheng, who for a decade had spent his winters fishing for glass eels, because the child eels are known as. Introduced in by the ocean currents yearly, the eels had lured households like Mr. Dai’s to Taiwan’s coasts for generations.
“We used to see the trade as worthwhile, however now increasingly individuals have doubts,” Mr. Dai stated.
All over the world, there are far fewer eels than there was. Conservationists say that probably the most generally traded eel species are threatened. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, their numbers have dropped due to overfishing, the lack of their riverside habitats to growth and, extra lately, local weather change, stated Han Yu-shan, a professor on the Institute of Fisheries Science at Nationwide Taiwan College.
Within the Nineteen Eighties and ’90s, Taiwan’s eel trade was thriving, fueled by Japan’s urge for food for unagi. There have been years when exports to Japan alone totaled $600 million. However these days are gone.
In 2022, Taiwan exported simply $58 million value of eels in whole. China, whose huge deepwater fleet has been accused of endangering fishing shares worldwide, way back eclipsed Taiwan as Japan’s principal supply of imported eels.
Professor Han stated that whereas international warming’s results on eels had not been carefully studied, fishermen in Taiwan suppose that modifications in temperature have an effect on the tides that convey of their catch.
“The hotter the seawater is, the decrease the fish would swim,” which makes them tougher to catch, stated Kuo Chou-in, 68, president of the Taiwan Eel and Shrimp Exporters’ Affiliation.
Fishermen like Mr. Dai promote their eels to wholesalers alongside the Lanyang River in Yilan County, simply noticed by the indicators that learn “accepting eels.” Wholesalers pay as a lot as $40 per gram — gold is about $63 for a similar quantity — with about six eels to a gram.
From there, they go to aquaculture farms, the place they’re raised to maturity. (To guard its dwindling shares, Taiwan has banned the export of glass eels through the winter fishing season, however many are smuggled out as a part of a world, multibillion-dollar black market.)
Earlier than being flown to Japan and different nations, mature eels’ final cease in Taiwan is a packaging plant, the place they’re packed in luggage of water with thick slabs of ice. Ms. Kuo, the export affiliation president, owns a kind of vegetation, within the northern metropolis of Taoyuan.
She is a uncommon girl in a male-dominated trade. On a winter night, she strode the ground of her plant in galoshes, speaking to shoppers on the telephone and infrequently dipping her arms into vats, to catch the slithering eels and kind them into streams.
Ms. Kuo started her profession at 21 with a Japanese import-export firm that dealt in, amongst different issues, eels. She caught her first glimpse of them as an interpreter, throughout a website go to at a packaging plant. She was fascinated by how the employees, utilizing solely their fingers, caught the eels and precisely judged their weight.
After 17 years on the firm, Ms. Kuo misplaced her job when Japan’s bubble economic system crashed. She went into enterprise for herself in 1992, depleting her financial savings and mortgaging two properties to purchase manufacturing unit tools. She stated she slept in her automotive for years.
Ultimately, the frugality and hustle led to a grander life-style. Ms. Kuo now drives a convertible and has been profiled in Taiwanese media (which dubbed her “the eel queen.”) She as soon as appeared on a Japanese tv present to cook dinner samples of her product for a panel of judges.
“The Taiwanese eels received the competitors,” she recalled with a smile. “Our eels are the very best.”
Glamour is tougher to search out within the often-polluted estuaries the place glass eels are caught. The fishermen stand for hours, dipping basket-like nets out and in of the water, or they swim out after tying themselves to metallic anchors on the seaside.
Chen Chih-chuan, a part-time technician, stated he virtually died as soon as whereas swimming for eels. “I misplaced the energy to tug the rope. I let go and let myself float within the sea,” he recalled throughout a break alongside the Lanyang River.
“Now I’m older and extra skilled,” stated Mr. Chen, who wore a inexperienced, rubbery full-body swimsuit and yellow boots. “I received’t push myself to that extent.” He leaped again into the waves.
Mr. Chen stated he had managed to make $8,000 this season — an quantity he was glad with, although down from earlier years.
The worth of eels plummeted through the pandemic, as eating places closed and international delivery was thrown into disarray.
Chang Shi-ming, 61, caught eels as a younger man close to the town of Changhua on Taiwan’s western coast. Within the early Nineteen Nineties, a sprawling petrochemical plant went up there. Smoke and steam rise from its many chimneys, blanketing the close by grass with white mud. He stated the harvest has by no means been the identical.
“We’ve seen a lot harm over the previous years,” Mr. Chang stated. “There are only a few eels this 12 months.” That, a minimum of, is what he hears; about 20 years in the past, Mr. Chang switched to cultivating clams, which is much less labor-intensive.
His eldest son works on the petrochemical plant. “It’s only a job,” Mr. Chang stated.
Chiang Kai-te, 43, a part-time building employee, had spent a few years working odd jobs when a good friend’s success satisfied him to strive eel fishing. He moved from his hometown to a village by the Lanyang River. He noticed his 4-year-old son and his mother and father solely on weekends, once they visited.
The work had proved arduous to grasp and the nightly catch troublesome to foretell, starting from 10 to 100 child eels. On a latest outing, he caught fewer than 20.
“It’s arduous to money in,” stated Mr. Chiang, slumped on the bottom from exhaustion. “My entire household depends on me.” He stated he was on the verge of quitting.
“I don’t suppose it’s sustainable to maintain doing this,” he stated.
Close by, half a dozen retirees have been having a greater time, grilling rooster wings round a small pit. They have been members of the Amis tribe, one in all Taiwan’s Indigenous ethnic teams.
Eel fishing was not an Amis custom, however the mates had been spending their winters in Yilan County for a decade, establishing camp in tents fitted with picket doorways. After fishing, they’d crack open beers and speak cheerfully into the evening.
“We’re right here not only for eels, but in addition for spending time with mates,” stated Wuving Vayan, 58, who was utilizing a dirty flotation system as a makeshift stool. “It’s one of many happiest moments throughout a 12 months.”
“We will’t management the modifications of the local weather,” she added. “All we will do is pray for good climate and harvest.”