Yukon eel season finds international market

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2003

ANCHORAGE - It's eel season on the Yukon River.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of the squiggly, squirmy creatures are swimming up from the Bering Sea, a seething mass wriggling beneath the river ice to spawn and die.

Residents of Mountain Village, Marshall, Grayling and other Yukon communities eagerly await their arrival.

When the eels - Arctic lampreys, to be precise - pass through a village, fishermen rush to the river to dip their nets and "eel sticks" through holes in the ice, pulling the fish out by the hundreds.

Baked or canned, eels are considered a rich delicacy.

This year, the Yukon eel season has taken a new twist. In what state biologists are calling a first, a commercial buyer is paying $1.25 a pound for the oily fish and flying them to markets in South Korea, although some were available briefly in Anchorage.

Biologists said they set the quota conservatively, and fishermen are already complaining it's too low.

But even 44,000 pounds of eel will provide a welcome infusion of cash in the impoverished region, said fisherman Marvin Deacon of Grayling.

"I hope it takes off," he said of the new fishery. "Those eels come up every year. There's thousands, if not millions, of them."

Eeling is a fickle venture, fishermen say. You might chip a hole in the ice and enjoy good fishing for 10 minutes, only to have the eels disappear.

Lampreys are believed to travel as many as 17 miles a day, and the season usually lasts only a few days.

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