At times, the cramped confines of a 20-foot long and five-foot wide aluminum Dory boat can test the love of this eel fishing couple.
But George Dowdle says even when outings from the New London wharf get a bit testy, he and his wife Marlene manage to “leave the office on the water.’’
Getting along with other commercial eel fishermen, however, has been a challenge in the past for Dowdle, a burly, bearded fisherman with a Grizzly Adams-like appearance.
Dowdle recalls five or six years back plenty of nastiness occurring between a few licence holders landing eels in his netting grounds on the Southwest River. His nets were tampered with — some were even cut. He took a good thumping in a physical exchange as well.
“There was a lot of threats being made and a lot of mistrust,’’ he says. “It was getting pretty dangerous.’’
He lauds Fisheries and Oceans Canada for calming the waters.
An agreement in place for the past handful of years has brought harmony to the commercial eel fishery in Prince Edward Island. Still, Dowdle feared the agreement might be ignored this year, returning the area he fishes to previous hostilities.
Fortunately, such clashes appear to have been averted.
On Aug. 21, several eel harvesters met with fishery officers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to discuss the fishery, including the spacing of fishing gear in the Southwest River, says Steve Hachey, communications advisor with DFO.
He says an agreement was reached which offers access to the resource to those harvesters who indicated an interest to fish that river. The arrangement is based partially on the traditional fishing locations of the harvesters involved. Under the arrangement, notes Hachey, seven harvesters are fishing for eels on the Southwest River this season.
He says fishery officers were present on the rivers during the opening of the eel-fishing season on Aug. 23 and will continue to monitor activity throughout the season that closes after eight weeks on Oct. 23.
Overall, the eel fishery has been going along rather swimmingly in recent years in P.E.I. with its shallow bays, broad estuaries and short rivers providing an abundance of favourable habitat for the slimy, snake-like creatures.
The total number of harvesters in P.E.I., including First Nation harversters, licensed to fish commercially for eels using nets is 237, but only 50 to 60 of those are active.
The amount of eel being caught, as well as the value of the landings, has been increasing in recent years.
In 2001, only 40.4 metric tonnes were landed. In 2006, the landings were well over double that amount at 100.5 metric tonnes with a value of $601,000. In 2011, landings were up slightly to 109 metric tonnes but the value jumped significantly at $704,000.
Meanwhile, commercial eel fishing using spears has been closed in the province since 2005 for conservation reasons.
“Management measures in the eel fishery are set to ensure that long-term conservation objectives are met and reflect the current status of the species,’’ says Hachey.
Dowdle started fishing eels 13 years ago to augment his income from oyster harvesting. He and his wife both have licences to fish eel.
The couple is usually on the water around 7:30 a.m. depending on the tide and the weather. They may lose seven to 10 days a season due to strong winds.
Dowdle drives the boat and hauls up the long nets, dumping their contents into a large, plastic container.
Marlene than fearlessly nabs one eel after another, doing her best to avoid a nasty pinch or two from crabs crawling among flounders and other assorted fish that all get tossed back into the river to the great interest of seagulls and eagles hovering above.
“There was a lot of threats being made and a lot of mistrust. It was getting pretty dangerous,’’ George Dowdle, fishermen
The pair spends about six hours on the water tossing eels that make the grade into a container and tossing everything else overboard. Dowdle and his wife hit all of the approximately 40 placed nets each time they head out on their boat.
The nets cost $350 to $500 each so Dowdle makes his own to save money.
“If you look after them well they’ll last you a good 20 years no problem,’’ he says. “It just depends on how hard the storms are on them too or the crabs.’’
Dowdle says 50 to 60 per cent of his fishing income now comes from landing eels.
He would be “very happy’’ this season with a total haul of 6,000 to 8,000 pounds with eels currently fetching a price of about $2.50 per pound.
Although eels are not common on local restaurant menus, they are considered a delicacy in Asia and Europe and are highly sought after.
“Sushi is big everywhere of course, that’s worldwide,’’ he says of one common use for eels. “In Northern Europe, they’d sooner have a smoked eel than a turkey at Christmas time.’’
As for Dowdle, he likes to fish eel, but not eat them.
“Well, I’m not a big fan of it because I don’t like oily fish,’’ he says. “It’s a greasy, oily taste. It’s strong for me.’’
Dowdle certainly sees more years of eel fishing in his future but he is also hopeful to eventually pass his licence on to the next generation, noting his 22-year-old daughter has taken well to fishing eels.
“Hopefully she will continue in it,’’ he says. “At some point we will want to pass this down.’’