In Taiwan’s Waters, a Hunt for Tiny, Wriggling ‘Gold’

The hunters waded into the water after dark, their headlamps beaming as they tossed nets into the crashing waves over and over again.

All night, they shook muck from the nets, sorting out their prizes: wriggling, transparent baby eels, each no thicker than a vermicelli noodle. They were worth their weight in gold, or nearly. The fishermen dropped them into jars of water, which some of them hung around their necks on string.

“Sometimes it’s gold, sometimes it’s dirt,” said Dai Chia-sheng, who for a decade had spent his winters fishing for glass eels, as the baby eels are called. Brought in by the ocean currents every year, the eels had lured families like Mr. Dai’s to Taiwan’s coasts for generations.

“We used to see the industry as profitable, but now more and more people have doubts,” Mr. Dai said.

Around the world, there are far fewer eels than there used to be. Conservationists say that the most commonly traded eel species are threatened. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, their numbers have dropped because of overfishing, the loss of their riverside habitats to development and, more recently, climate change, said Han Yu-shan, a professor at the Institute of Fisheries Science at National Taiwan University.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Taiwan’s eel industry was thriving, fueled by Japan’s appetite for unagi. There were years when exports to Japan alone totaled $600 million. But those days are gone.

In 2022, Taiwan exported just $58 million worth of eels in total. China, whose vast deepwater fleet has been accused of endangering fishing stocks worldwide, long ago eclipsed Taiwan as Japan’s main source of imported eels.

Professor Han said that while global warming’s effects on eels had not been closely studied, fishermen in Taiwan think that changes in temperature affect the tides that bring in their catch.

“The warmer the seawater is, the lower the fish would 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, easily spotted by the signs that read “accepting eels.” Wholesalers pay as much as $40 per gram — gold is about $63 for the same amount — with about six eels to a gram.

From there, they go to aquaculture farms, where they are raised to maturity. (To protect its dwindling stocks, Taiwan has banned the export of glass eels during the winter fishing season, but many are smuggled out as part of a global, multibillion-dollar black market.)

Before being flown to Japan and other countries, mature eels’ last stop in Taiwan is a packaging plant, where they’re packed in bags of water with thick slabs of ice. Ms. Kuo, the export association president, owns one of those plants, in the northern city of Taoyuan.

She is a rare woman in a male-dominated industry. On a winter evening, she strode the floor of her plant in galoshes, talking to clients on the phone and occasionally dipping her arms into vats, to catch the slithering eels and sort them into streams.

Ms. Kuo began her career at 21 with a Japanese import-export company that dealt in, among other things, eels. She caught her first glimpse of them as an interpreter, during a site visit at a packaging plant. She was fascinated by how the workers, using only their hands, caught the eels and accurately judged their weight.

After 17 years at the company, Ms. Kuo lost her job when Japan’s bubble economy crashed. She went into business for herself in 1992, depleting her savings and mortgaging two properties to buy factory equipment. She said she slept in her car for years.

Eventually, the frugality and hustle led to a grander lifestyle. Ms. Kuo now drives a convertible and has been profiled in Taiwanese media (which dubbed her “the eel queen.”) She once appeared on a Japanese television show to cook samples of her product for a panel of judges.

“The Taiwanese eels won the competition,” she recalled with a smile. “Our eels are the best.”

Glamour is harder to find in the often-polluted estuaries where glass eels are caught. The fishermen stand for hours, dipping basket-like nets in and out of the water, or they swim out after tying themselves to metal anchors on the beach.

Chen Chih-chuan, a part-time technician, said he almost died once while swimming for eels. “I lost the strength to pull the rope. I let go and let myself float in the sea,” he recalled during a break along the Lanyang River.

“Now I’m older and more experienced,” said Mr. Chen, who wore a green, rubbery full-body suit and yellow boots. “I won’t push myself to that extent.” He leaped back into the waves.

Mr. Chen said he had managed to make $8,000 this season — an amount he was satisfied with, though down from previous years.

The price of eels plummeted during the pandemic, as restaurants closed and global shipping was thrown into disarray.

Chang Shi-ming, 61, caught eels as a young man near the city of Changhua on Taiwan’s western coast. In the early 1990s, a sprawling petrochemical plant went up there. Smoke and steam rise from its many chimneys, blanketing the nearby grass with white dust. He said the harvest has never been the same.

“We’ve seen so much damage over the past years,” Mr. Chang said. “There are very few eels this year.” That, at least, is what he hears; about 20 years ago, Mr. Chang switched to cultivating clams, which is less labor-intensive.

His eldest son works at the petrochemical plant. “It’s just a job,” Mr. Chang said.

Chiang Kai-te, 43, a part-time construction worker, had spent many years working odd jobs when a friend’s success convinced him to try eel fishing. He moved from his hometown to a village by the Lanyang River. He saw his 4-year-old son and his parents only on weekends, when they visited.

The work had proved hard to master and the nightly catch difficult to predict, ranging from 10 to 100 baby eels. On a recent outing, he caught fewer than 20.

“It’s hard to cash in,” said Mr. Chiang, slumped on 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 keep doing this,” he said.

Nearby, half a dozen retirees were having a better time, grilling chicken wings around a small pit. They were members of the Amis tribe, one of Taiwan’s Indigenous ethnic groups.

Eel fishing was not an Amis tradition, but the friends had been spending their winters in Yilan County for a decade, setting up camp in tents fitted with wooden doors. After fishing, they would crack open beers and talk cheerfully into the night.

“We’re here not just for eels, but also for spending time with friends,” said Wuving Vayan, 58, who was using a grimy flotation device as a makeshift stool. “It’s one of the happiest moments during a year.”

“We can’t control the changes of the climate,” she added. “All we can do is pray for good weather and harvest.”

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