After dark fell on the waters, the hunters went into the water and tossed their nets into crashing waves.

They worked all night to remove the muck from their nets and sort out their prize: baby eels. They were worth more than their weight in gold. They were dropped into jars of fresh water by fishermen, and some of them were tied around their necks with string.

“Sometimes it’s gold, sometimes it’s dirt,” Dai Chia Sheng, who spent a decade fishing for glass eels (or baby eels) said that he had spent his winters fishing. Brought in by the ocean currents every year, the eels had lured families like Mr. Dai’s to Taiwan’s coasts for generations.

“We used to see the industry as profitable, but now more and more people have doubts,” Mr. Dai spoke.

There are now far fewer eels in the wild than there were previously. Conservationists believe that the most common eel species in the world are at risk. As in other countries, they have declined due to overfishing and the loss of their riverside habitats for development. Climate change is also a factor. Han Yu Shan, a professor at The University of Taiwan, stated that the endangered species are under threat. Institute of Fisheries Science National Taiwan University

In the 1980s and ’90s, Taiwan’s eel industry was thriving, fueled by Japan’s appetite for unagi. In Japan, exports totaled $600 millions for years. These days, however, are over.

Taiwan exported $58 million of eels total in 2022. China, whose vast deepwater fleet has been accused of endangering fishing stocks worldwide, long ago eclipsed Taiwan as Japan’s main source of imported eels.

Professor Han said that while global warming’s effects on eels had not been closely studied, fishermen in Taiwan think that changes in temperature affect the tides that bring in their catch.

“The warmer the seawater is, the lower the fish would swim,” which makes them harder to catch, said Kuo Chou-in, 68, president of the Taiwan Eel and Shrimp Exporters’ Association.

The signs that say “Fisherman like Mr. Dai” make it easy to spot fishermen selling their eels along the Lanyang River in Yilan County. “accepting eels.” Wholesalers pay as much as $40 per gram — gold is about $63 for the same amount — with about six eels to a gram.

The eels are taken to aquaculture farms to be raised until maturity. Taiwan banned glass eels exports during winter fishing season to protect its declining stocks. Many are smuggled out As part of a multibillion-dollar global black market.

Before being flown to Japan and other countries, mature eels’ last stop in Taiwan is a packaging plant, where they’re packed in bags of water with thick slabs of ice. Ms. Kuo, president of the export association, has one of those plants located in Taoyuan, north.

In a male-dominated industry, she is an uncommon woman. In winter, she would walk on the floor of the plant in galoshes, talking to customers over the phone and sometimes reaching for her arms into vats to collect the eels.

Ms. Kuo’s career began at age 21 when she joined a Japanese import-export business that dealt in eels. Ms. Kuo first saw them in the role of an interpreter during a visit to a packaging plant. It was amazing to see how workers caught and weighed the eels using their only hands.

After 17 years at the company, Ms. Kuo lost her job when Japan’s bubble economy crashed. In 1992, she started her own business. She spent all of her savings and refinanced two properties in order to purchase factory equipment. She stated that she used to sleep in her car for years.

The hustle and frugality eventually led to a better lifestyle. Ms. Kuo drives a convertible now and was profiled by Taiwanese media. “the eel queen.”) She once appeared on a Japanese television show to cook samples of her product for a panel of judges.

“The Taiwanese eels won the competition,” She smiled as she remembered the incident. “Our eels are the best.”

In the often-polluted estuaries, where glass eels can be caught, glamour is difficult to find. Fisherman can be seen standing for hours in the water, using basket-like nets to dip into the water. Or they swim out, attaching themselves to anchors on the shore.

Chen Chih Chuan, a part time technician, stated that he almost drowned once while swimming with eels. “I lost the strength to pull the rope. I let go and let myself float in the sea,” During a stop along the Lanyang River, he remembered.

“Now I’m older and more experienced,” Chen wore a yellow, rubbery, full-body suit with green boots. “I won’t push myself to that extent.” He leapt back into the waves.

Mr. Chen said he had managed to make $8,000 this season — an amount he was satisfied with, though down from previous years.

The pandemic caused a drop in the cost of eels as many restaurants were closed and global shipping was disrupted.

Chang Shi-ming, 61, caught eels as a young man near the city of Changhua on Taiwan’s western coast. There was a large petrochemical plant that was built there in the 1990s. Its many chimneys let smoke and steam rise, covering the grass with white dust. He stated that harvest has never been as good.

“We’ve seen so much damage over the past years,” Mr. Chang said. “There are very few eels this year.” This is at least what he says. Around 20 years ago, Mr. Chang moved to cultivating clams. The labor-intensive part of the job is easier.

His eldest son works in the petrochemical plant. “It’s just a job,” Mr. Chang said.

Chiang Kai-te, 43, a part-time construction worker, had spent many years working odd jobs when a friend’s success convinced him to try eel fishing. He moved to a village near the Lanyang River from his hometown. His 4-year-old son, and his parents, were only able to see him on weekends.

It was difficult to learn and the nightly catch, which ranged from 10 to 100 baby Eels, was hard to predict. A recent outing saw him catch less than 20.

“It’s hard to cash in,” “Mr. Chiang is slumbering on the ground due to exhaustion,” he said. “My whole family relies on me.” He claimed he was about to quit.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable to keep doing this,” He said.

A half-dozen retirees were also nearby and were grilling chicken wings on a small pit. They were members of the Amis tribe, one of Taiwan’s Indigenous ethnic groups.

The Amis did not practice eel fishing, but their friends had been living in Yilan County for 10 years, setting up tents with wooden doors and spending winters there. They would have beers after fishing and chat until the early hours of the morning.

“We’re here not just for eels, but also for spending time with friends,” Wuving Vayan (58) was using a grimy flotation device to make a stool. “It’s one of the happiest moments during a year.”

“We can’t control the changes of the climate,” She added. “All we can do is pray for good weather and harvest.”