WILMINGTON -- For years, the American eel's population has been in decline along the Cape Fear River and its tributaries. Now, the few specimens found are often dotted with sores.
"It does not bode well," said Mary Moser, head of a state-funded effort to capture and study the long, slippery fish.
She said a parasite that has wiped out eel populations in parts of Europe might be responsible. Scientists found the parasite for the first time last year in Chesapeake Bay.
"It may be that this parasite has gotten into our system without us knowing," she said. "The dangerous thing is that this parasite has the ability to wipe out its host -- take the population to zero."
A couple of years ago, North Carolina made it illegal to keep young eels less than 6 inches long. Previously, it had been targeted by some commercial fishermen.
While Americans regard the eels as little more than crab bait, they are in demand elsewhere. Europeans consider smoked eel to be a delicacy, and in Japan, the juveniles, called glass eel or elver, are a savory sushi dish.
For those reasons and the eel's growing scarcity, prices have risen, leading to the growth of commercial glass eel fishing along the East Coast.
Last month, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission asked states to voluntarily limit glass eel catches while it develops a management plan.
Moser wonders whether an eel shortage ended commercial fishing in the Cape Fear.
"They're not like a menhaden where you look at it and it dies," she said. "Everyone knows it's one of the toughest fish out there."
With a $9,250 grant from N.C. Sea Grant, the researchers began laying traps in May. They also use long poles with metal wire ends to send an electric shock into areas of the river, stunning eels long enough to catch them.
But so few have been captured that the data likely will not serve the study's original purpose, so its focus will shift to the cause of the eels' decline. The researchers will cut into their specimens to look for signs of disease or parasites.
The trend is particularly disturbing considering 1998 has been a boom year for shad, said Robin Hall, the river's lockmaster.
"We've had the biggest year for shad practically this century," he said. "You would think there'd be even more eels."