At the beginning of the 2013 Maine elver season, Chad Jordan was hoping for another boom year.
“The spike in the eel market the last couple years has really changed my life,” he says on the TV series "Cold River Cash." With his earnings from the previous season he had put a down payment on a new boat.
But when the season starts slow, he’s working double shifts. At night he’s on the riverbank with a dipnet trying to catch glass eels then knee-deep in mud flats digging for clams during the day.
The reality television show, which debuted earlier this month on Animal Planet, was shot last spring in Southern Maine. 2013 was the third year of high prices for glass eels, or elvers.
The 10-week fishery has become a gold rush recently because Maine is one of the only places that can meet Asian demand for these tiny elvers. It takes 1,800 elvers to make a pound, but when prices go past $2,000 per pound, each one counts.
I was especially interested in the show because I wrote about the fishery in the September issue of National Fisherman after a trip Down East last spring. On the riverbanks I heard stories of nets being cut and attempts at elver robbery. Of course, those things happen when no-one's watching.
In the episode I watched the season had just opened to cold weather that was keeping catches low for the three teams, the Grinders, Eelinators, and Maineacs. The teams (not a normal part of elver fishing) are not only trying to catch as many elvers as they can but also competing against each other. I don’t know if there’s a prize beyond the price of elvers for getting the most but they heckle each other with words, fireworks and water balloons.
This comes across as silly. The show appears to be part of the trend of reality shows where the main premise is to marvel and laugh at blue-collar Americans with funny accents and pickup trucks.
These are New England fishermen. There’s plenty of real drama in the fishing industry around here. It doesn't need to be manufactured.
It was also hard to root for any of the teams. I’m sure the guys in Cold Water Cash are good guys, but on TV they’re presented as composites. The family man. The joker. The bickering father and son.
We get a small sense of their lives but it’s only a glimpse. I would have enjoyed a more in-depth look at a fisherman like Jordan, and how he’s managing to hold on to a way of life that’s quickly disappearing along these same shorelines. He says at the beginning of the episode that he makes as much money all year clamming as he does in the 10-week elver fishery. It'd be interesting to see what other fisheries he participates in and learn more about his life on and off the water.
I think that’s why I couldn’t get into the show. I would have liked it better if it focused on what it means to be a fisherman in a place where your kind is facing extinction. That would be more interesting than how many tiny glass eels are in the bottom of a dipnet and might also help the public understand what’s at stake.