More than 3,000 Mainers are vying for one of just 11 new baby eel fishing licenses that Maine will issue this year as it reopens the lucrative fishery.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources will issue the licenses through a lottery, with the drawing scheduled for sometime in the coming week. It will be the first time the state has allowed any new entrants into the fishery for baby eels, or elvers, since 2013.
Individuals could submit up to five applications, each with a $35 fee, for their chance to participate. In total, the more than 3,000 Mainers hoping to win a license submitted roughly 8,000 applications for the drawing by Monday’s deadline, Jeff Nichols, spokesman for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Tuesday.
While the odds of getting a license are slim, they’re slightly better this time around. Five years ago, more than 5,000 people applied for the chance to win one of four new elver fishing licenses.
The licenses have become a hot commodity as the price for elvers has skyrocketed, driven by voracious demand from East Asia. In 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, approximately 1,000 licensed Maine fishermen netted nearly $13.5 million worth of baby eels. Over the past several years, fishermen have averaged roughly $1,500 per pound for their catch.
Michele Christle and Derek Yorks are among those who submitted applications for this year’s lottery. The couple, who live next to Marsh Stream in Frankfort, a popular elver fishing spot, said they could use the extra income to help pay for renovations to their home and to support their 18-month-old daughter, Gloria.
“Something like this could really be a windfall for us,” Christle said. “We’ve been waiting to buy new windows. Our bathroom has been massively under construction for quite some time. We’re doing most of it ourselves.”
Since early 2014, when the couple bought their home, the average price paid to elver fishermen has varied from about $875 per pound to more than $2,100.
They admit their chances of winning a license in the lottery are “not that great.” If they win one license and catch four pounds, which will be the annual limit for the new licenses, they stand to make between $3,000 and $8,000 this spring, depending on the price.
Global demand for eels began driving up the price for Maine elvers earlier this decade. Most of the baby eels are shipped live to Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds to adult stage for the region’s seafood market.
Christle and Yorks now await the drawing this week. Between the two of them, they submitted six applications in the hopes of winning one or even two licenses.
State officials have not announced a date for the drawing, but previously said the winners will have to submit additional paperwork and fees by March 1 to get their license.
Christle said Brooklyn Road, their dead-end street that runs along the bank of Marsh Stream, has seen plenty of people coming and going during the night, when elver fishing takes place each spring. The couple has gotten to know some of the elver fishermen who return to the stream every year.
“During elver season, our road is lined with trucks and people,” she said. “While we were trying to sleep, people were making thousands of dollars 50 feet from our house. When it gets really busy, I can’t sleep at night because I get so excited. It’s thrilling to observe.”
Christle and Yorks said their interest in the fishery goes beyond the potential income, however. Yorks works as a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Christle works for Sustainable Harvest International, an Ellsworth nonprofit. Both are strongly in favor of making sure the eel population is protected from overfishing.
The population of American eels has declined over the past several decades. A few years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered — but decided against — listing American eels under the Endangered Species Act.
Fishing for elvers is legal only in Maine, where it is permitted along the entire coast, and South Carolina, where the practice is permitted in the Cooper River.
“Anything that is a conservation concern is first and foremost for me” Yorks said, adding that he is confident in the federal agency’s decision. “Their reviews take a very long time and are really very thorough.”
In response to concerns about protecting the species, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2014 set the first-ever statewide quota on Maine’s annual elver harvest. As a result, that year the state implemented individual catch quotas for each licensed elver fisherman.
Each fisherman’s quota is based upon his or her catch history. Most who already have licenses are limited to catching fewer than 15 pounds of elvers, but some are allowed to catch more than 50 pounds.
Christle said she and Yorks support the catch quota system, but also favor keeping the elver fishery open and accessible to Maine residents. She said she enjoys learning about the mysterious life cycle of the eels and about the economic importance of the fishery to rural Maine.
“It’s about how well can you fish and how hard are you willing to work and how wet are you willing to get,” Christle said.
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