PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s short but lucrative elver fishing season has started slowly, by all accounts, and prices are down dramatically from the 2012 peak of more than $2,000 per pound.
But two weeks in, the annual frenzy surrounding the netting, selling and shipping of the translucent baby eels to Asian markets seems safer, according to one elver dealer and his employees who attribute the “saner” sales climate to changes that include a new electronic swipe card system implemented by the state to track the volume of elvers each fisherman catches.
Elver dealer Max Feigenbaum sometimes works 36 hours straight this time of year, buying the glass eels from fishermen at Delaware Valley Fish Company on Commercial Street and shipping them overseas.
If you sleep for two hours, he said, “Then you’re two hours behind.”
The season was originally slated to open March 22, but delays in implementing the new regulatory system pushed opening day back to April 6. Despite that late start, the season will still end on May 31, according to Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
In part due to persistent cold, the 2014 season has been slow during the first two weeks. But as temperatures rise, business seems to be increasing.
“The eels are there,” said fisherman Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association. “They’re just a little late. But they’ll be back in May.”
Despite the early decrease in supply, prices have dropped markedly from 2012, when they shot from a 2010 average of $185 per pound to nearly $900 per pound in 2011 and an average of $1,866 the following year. In 2012, the statewide harvest was valued at more than $38 million — the second-most lucrative in the state behind Maine’s $340 million lobster fishery.
The per-pound price dropped a bit in 2013, when the baby eels netted $1,500 to $1,700 per pound. In the early weeks of the 2014 season, fishermen are receiving far less per pound of elvers.
On Monday, Feigenbaum hedged when asked how much he was paying elver fishermen, only willing to offer a ballpark of $500 to $1,000 per pound. He declined outright to say how much he’s selling them for.
Recent reports peg the price paid to fishermen at $400 to $600 per pound on average.
People in the industry offer a variety of theories to explain the decline in price. Some attribute it to strides made by European sources that, instead of exporting elvers, raise them and sell them as adults. Others cite a return of an Asian supplier that was temporarily knocked out of the market in 2012 and 2013.
“Now there’s a lot of product and a lot of competition,” Young said.
But Feigenbaum cautioned, “If you listened to every rumor you heard on the side of the riverbank, your head would go crazy.”
Price is not the only change this season. Laws regulating the industry, including the introduction of the swipe card system to track a fisherman’s catch and a 2013 law requiring fishermen be paid by check, have made it safer — and more manageable for dealers and fishermen alike.
Paying by check is designed to reduce the large amounts of cash exchanged between dealers and fishermen and put an end to robberies and theft, as well as help track the sales of the tiny eels.
“This year you can breathe,” said James McIntire of West Bath, who works for Feigenbaum. “You don’t have to worry about someone sneaking up on you.”
In past years, with the amount of money being exchanged, a police officer was often stationed outside the office.
Then, McIntire and other employees would weigh eels delivered by fishermen, do some quick figuring on a slip of paper, and “go into the safe” to get cash — sometimes thousands of dollars.
This year, along with individual catch quotas assigned to fishermen, they’re each issued a swipe card that tracks their total haul and prevents them from selling elvers after reaching their individual quotas.
All licensed elver dealers in Maine are required to use the cards to electronically document their transactions — in part to curtail the illegal sales of the eels. All but 71 of the state’s 953 licensed harvesters have picked up their swipe cards, Nichols said Tuesday. The average individual quota is 12.32 pounds, with a total state quota at 11,749 pounds.
“A lot of people don’t like it. I like it. I wouldn’t say I love it,” said Feigenbaum of the new system. “It makes everything a little more straightforward, a little more stress-free. For our paperwork end, everything works electronically now.”
“It’s working good,” Young said Tuesday. “There have been no mistakes — the computer pulls your name right up and there’s no misspelling.”
Nichols echoed Young’s enthusiasm for the swipe cards, and said in the single incident in which a card did not work Monday, a Maine Marine Patrol officer used his card to complete the transaction.
The cards and individual quotas imposed by the state are part of an agreement to comply with a mandate from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission after a stock assessment determined the species was depleted in American waters. State officials agreed to reduce the 2014 statewide elver harvest by 25-40 percent and adopted the catch quotas.
On Monday afternoon, Andrew Kapuscinski dipped a net into a cooler full of icy water in the back of his pickup truck and scooped out about $12,000 worth of the tiny baby eels.
The new system may reduce the amount of cash kept at the office, but Kapuscinski, who works for Feigenbaum, is still on alert when he delivers a truckload of eels worth sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.
And security at the Commercial Street operation remains high, with security cameras watching every corner of the facility.
Despite the changes, poachers still attempt to sell the eels. On Thursday, two Massachusetts men were arrested on Commercial Street for allegedly attempting to sell nearly 20 pounds of elvers. Maine Marine Patrol officials said the case remains under investigation.
Also on Saturday, two Brooklyn, N.Y., men were arrested in Wiscasset and charged with purchasing elvers without a license. Later that day, two Massachusetts men were arrested in Portland after Maine Marine Patrol officers allegedly seized 31 pounds of elvers, Nichols said. They were charged with possessing elvers without a license.
“If they don’t have a swipe card, we’ll tell them to get the [expletive] out,” Feigenbaum said of fishermen who attempt illegal sales. “We have to be very clear.”
Nichols said the DMR is confident the swipe card system, along with the individual quota system, will help prevent illegal poaching — which DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Friday “remains the greatest threat to our ability to maintain this lucrative fishery into the future.”
But because of this year’s late start, cold weather and lower price per pound, Nichols said it’s too early to compare last season to this season.
“We will be better able to assess the impact of the swipe card system and the individual quota system as we get closer to the end of the season,” he said.
Feigenbaum said he has faith that, thanks to the DMR, if illegally caught eels are sold in Maine, “it’s a minimal amount.”
“We are very confident they’re keeping the industry clean,” he said.
BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.