Taiwan: Dancing with the glass eels

As an island country, Taiwan's fishing industry is an important sector, and one of the most profitable farmed fish is eel because of the Japanese market. Eels’ life history had been a mystery, as they are catadromous, meaning they live part of their life in freshwater and part in saltwater. Eel larvae, leptocephalus, hatch in the open sea. After they reach an adequate size, they become glass eels and enter the headwaters of rivers. In the freshwater, they travel upstream and turn into elvers. After further transformation, they eventually reach adulthood and migrate back to the sea. There are several eel species and here we are referring to the Japanese eels, which are pricey in the restaurants.

Most discussions regarding fishery are in economic and scientific terms, we seldom get to know the life of fishermen here. Avant described the life history of eels and explained how it intertwined with fisherman's fate with a photo essay:


The behaviors of eels and salmons are different. The adult eels live in rivers. During the reproduction season in summer, they swim downstream toward the deep sea thousands miles away (besides Philippine and the Mariana Islands) to lay their eggs. The hatched leptocephalus drift with the North Equatorial Current toward Philippine. They then drift with the Kuroshio current toward north. Therefore, we can see people in different countries catch glass eels along the way of the Kuroshio Current: Philippine, Taiwan, and Japan.


From October to April, for about half year, these glass eels drifting with the Kuroshio current arrive Yilan, Taiwan and prepare to swim to the upstream of some rivers, including the Lang-Yang river. At the same time, some aboriginal Taiwanese (whose ancestors live in the eastern Taiwan) leave their home in Keelong, Rueifang, Sanshia, Shulin, and Sanyin for the outlet of the Lang-Yang river. They are after the glass eels. In the half-year glass-eel-catching season, they set up temporary canvas tents at the beach so that they can live there and catch the glass eels.

Photo courtesy of Avant.


Glass eels swim into the river at night. Thus glass-eel fishermen are busiest at night. After dark, they drag nets and wait for these glass eels swimming into the outlet of the river.

Photo courtesy of Avant.

Avant explained why fishermen look for glass eels.


When the glass-eel market is hot, one glass eel is worth NTD 50. Fishermen who are lucky can earn ten to twenty thousand dollars in one day. Therefore, some people called glass eels “bio-gold.”

Avant talked about how the price of glass eels influences the fishermen.


When the price of glass eels is high, you can see tons of fishermen in the sea. There would be countless lights at the beach shinning with stars in the sky–lights for the vendors that sell noodles, bread, and even lamb-stew. Thus the beach becomes lively like a night market. However, the price of glass eels varies a lot. Sometimes one glass eel is only worth NTD 8!

Photo courtesy of Avant.

Photo courtesy of Avant.


When the price of glass eels is high, it is understood that many people will jump into the sea for them. However, when a glass eel only worth NTD 8, we can imagine what a difficult life the glass-eel fishermen are when they need to go into the sea for the damn cheap glass eels.


Hui-Ping Sung used to work in a factory in Shulin. Becoming unemployed last November, she came to the outlet of the Lang-Yang river to live with her parents and her sister's family and help pick glass eels. Her father and sister take turns to go to the sea to catch glass eels, and she and her mother at the beach pick glass eels out of sands.


Their family had worked for the whole night, but they only earned less than NTD 100. Hui-Ping Sung's brother-in-law said that if you see all the fishermen having a drink at the beach, you can say there is no glass eels in the sea.

There is also risk for catching glass eels in the sea. A fisherman Avant talked to said:


In the outlet of the Lany-Yang river, there have been one fisherman towed away by the tide since this glass-eel season have began.


A-Chuang, a young man from Wujie, Yilan, began to catch glass eels these days because of unemployment. He always has a drink of liquor before going into the sea. He said recently one of his friends was towed away by the tide because the pants were filled with water, similar to a balloon filled with air. If his friend did not take off the pants quickly, he could be dead already. When his friend swam back, he only wore his underpants.

Photo courtesy of Avant.

Photo courtesy of Avant.

這些像牙籤棒大小,全身晶瑩剔透的玻璃鰻在海中等待變態成鰻線 。

These toothpick-size, transparent glass eels in the sea are waiting to become elvers.

Avant talked about why he wanted to go to the beach and how he felt after talking to some fishermen:


“I have never been at the beach at night. I had a cold feet when surrounded by the endless darkness and the roaring tides. It is hard for me to imagine that there are so many people trying to make a living in this kind of environment.”


“When the cold air mass attacks, we are blessed to have a cup of hot tea and chat with our family in the warm and luminous living room or sleep on the beds. However, there are some people working outside in this harsh weather, who tries to make a living in the never-stopping tides.”


“The strong contrast makes me wonder how it feels to fight with the tides at the cold, gloomy night.”

Like most of the fishing industry, eel farming also results in environmental problems, such as water shortage and land sinkage caused by the heavy extraction of groundwater. However, eel-farming is driven by the market. seafood pointed out why eel farming relies on glass-eel fishery heavily:


Eels are expensive, but the glass eels are all from the sea. So far, we cannot hatch eel larvae and rear them in an artificial environment.

In fact, the population of the Japanese eels, along with the population of anguillid eels (fresh water eels) worldwide, have declined drastically in recent years (via Wikipedia). This is presumably due to changing water conditions, interfering with spawning and the transport of eel larvae (via Wikipedia). Latest technology seems to be able to reduce the environmental impact of glass eel fishery, as some Japanese biologists claimed that they have successfully rear eel larvae to glass-eel.


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