ELLSWORTH, Maine — If last year’s prices hold and warm weather persists, it could be another big year for Maine’s elver fishery.
The annual elver fishing season in Maine, which is one of only two states that permit the harvesting of baby American eels as they swim upstream into fresh water from the Atlantic Ocean, is due to start at noon Tuesday, March 22.
[Watch this video of opening day of the 2013 elver fishing season]
In 2015, the average price Maine elver fishermen were paid for their catch, also called the shore price, reached a record high, as it rose above $2,000 per pound — more than twice as high as it had been the year before. A cold and snowy winter and ensuing cold and dry spring, however, kept the run of elvers fairly low, resulting in fishermen catching only about half the statewide quota.
The 2015 catch total of 5,259 pounds ranks 13th for volume out of the past 22 years that Maine Department of Marine Resources has kept records on its annual harvest, which traditionally runs from late March through the end of May. But because of last year’s record average shore price of $2,171 per pound, the cumulative economic haul of all the state’s licensed elver fishermen, which number fewer than 1,000, was valued at $11.4 million — the third-highest annual total since 1994.
Darrell Young, co-founder of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said Friday he does not know what the price offered to fishermen might be on opening day, but he is skeptical it will start out as high as where it left off last spring.
“They don’t quote a price until the season opens,” Young said, referring to dealers who buy the live elvers and then ship them to Asia. “I’ve heard anywhere from $1,500 [per pound] to $2,500, so who knows?”
Given the mild winter this year, he added, he expects the volume of the statewide 2016 catch will reach the 9,688-pound annual catch limit that was set two years ago. Snow is forecast for this coming weekend, which could make the first few days of fishing slow, he said. But he expects the spring to be warm overall.
“When the ice is out on the ponds, the eels start running,” said Young, who lives in Waltham and on Friday already was scoping out a fishing spot near Hog Bay in Franklin. “There’s eels around already. I don’t think we’ll have any problem catching our quota this year.”
Bill Sheldon, a longtime elver dealer and fisherman from Woolwich, said Friday he also expects Maine’s harvest limit will be reached this year, with elvers showing up earlier in coastal tidal streams than they did in 2015.
He said he does not know what prices will be next Tuesday when fishing starts, but he expects they will go up as the season progresses. Globally, Maine and Atlantic Canada are where the final two springtime elver seasons are held, he said, and so those areas often reap the benefits of sustained worldwide demand for adult eels.
Last year, high demand in May helped push the shore price at the end of the season up near $2,700 per pound. Sheldon said he sees no reason why demand this year would be different than it was during the 2015 season.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see that figure surpassed this year by the time the end of the season rolls around,” Sheldon said. “In general, I think things look good [for Maine’s elver fishery].”
Because of the cold spring last year, the 2015 catch total was about 4,400 pounds less than the 9,688-pound statewide quota imposed on Maine by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in the fall of 2014. Earlier that same year, before elver season started, the interstate commission set a statewide catch limit of 11,749 pounds.
In a prepared statement issued March 15, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher noted that if Maine fishermen had caught an additional 4,400 pounds of elvers last year, they would have earned more than $9.6 million in additional income.
For that reason, he added, some of the state’s elver fishing regulations have been changed for the 2016 season. The 48-hour closure periods that used to go into effect each week have been eliminated, Keliher said, while the length of the season is being extended by a week, from May 31 to June 7.
The establishment of the statewide catch quota two years ago, according to Keliher, makes these changes possible while still protecting the resource. If fishermen catch a lot of elvers early this season, the fishery will be closed when the statewide catch limit is reached. If the fishing is slow, license holders will be able to fish until June 7, and then will have to wait until next year to fish again.
“Now, with the quota system and the ability to monitor the harvest in near real time with swipe cards, both of which [Maine] implemented in 2014, we can manage this fishery with precision,” Keliher said in the statement. “That means better prospects for fishermen and better protection for the resource.”
The amount of gear each fisherman has been allowed to use will not change. However, under new law, if a fisherman has been allowed to use one piece of gear, that person will be able to choose whether to use a dip net or a fyke net for the entire season, according to DMR officials. A fyke net is a large funnel-shaped net that is tied in place along the banks of rivers and streams. If a fisherman previously has been permitted to use two pieces of gear, he or she can choose to fish one dip net and one fyke net or two fyke nets. Two dip nets are not allowed because each license holder can only hold and manipulate one dip net at a time.
Previously, an elver fisherman was obligated to use the type of equipment specified on his license, which remained the same from one year to the next. If the individual wanted to switch from a hand-dip net to a fyke net or vice versa, the fisherman needed to get on a waiting list for a new license with the different equipment listed on it.
The changes in the state’s elver fishing laws also authorize Keliher to approve agreements with the state’s Indian tribes if a tribe requests a waiver that would exempt its members from individual quotas, relying instead on overall quotas for each tribe. Officials with Maine’s four federally recognized Indian tribes have said in recent years that they are not bound by state conservation laws and should not be forced to impose individual quotas on their members.
The tribes will have the same overall tribal catch limits they had in 2015, with the Passamaquoddys limited to 1,356 pounds, the Penobscots to 620 pounds, the Maliseets to 107 pounds and the Micmacs to 39 pounds. These limits are included in the 9,688-pound limit that has been set for the entire state.
Over the past five years, demand has soared for the baby American eels, the vast majority of which are shipped live to East Asia, where they are grown in captivity to adult size and then harvested for the region’s seafood market.
The two most productive and lucrative years for Maine’s elver fishery were 2012 and 2013. High demand, warm springs and the lack of catch limits resulted in Maine elver fishermen harvesting 21,000 pounds of elvers in 2012 and 18,000 pounds the following year, netting statewide gross revenue totals of $40 million and nearly $33 million, respectively. The average shore price in each of those years exceeded $1,800 per pound.
The average price Maine fishermen earned in 2014, the first year that a statewide catch limit was imposed, fell below $900 per pound. Restricted to a statewide harvest of nearly 9,700 pounds, Maine elver fishermen cumulatively earned $8.4 million for their catch in 2014. Those totals are similar to 2011, when elver fishermen harvested 8,500 pounds statewide and collectively were paid $7.6 million for their efforts.