ELLSWORTH, Maine — After two years of runaway catches and explosive value, Maine’s elver fishery fell substantially back toward Earth in 2014, according to state officials.
But despite a near 75 percent reduction in the value of the volatile fishery, elver fishermen in Maine still did pretty well last year, bringing in the third-most valuable annual elver harvest in the past two decades.
According to a statement released Thursday by the state Department of Marine Resources, licensed elver fishermen in Maine last year caught 9,690 pounds of the baby American eels and cumulatively earned $8,474,302 for the statewide haul.
The catch total is about 46 percent lower than the 18,076 pounds of elvers they caught in 2013, while the value is 74 percent lower than the nearly $33 million they earned in that same year, according to Department of Marine Resources statistics. The average price per pound that elver fishermen earned in 2014 — $875 — is nearly $1,000 less than the $1,822 per pound they earned in 2013.
Warm ocean temperatures and mild spring weather have been credited with abnormally high catches in 2012 and 2013, when demand in Asia peaked and after the supply of adult eels was still low due to damage caused by the disastrous March 2011 tsunami that hit northeastern Japan. Elvers caught in Maine are shipped to the Far East and grown into adults for the region’s sizeable seafood market.
The fishery’s record year was in 2012, when fisherman caught 21,611 pounds and were paid a total of more than $40 million for their efforts. That year, fishermen on average earned $1,869 for every pound of elvers they caught.
Global demand for eels eased up by late March 2014, when the annual 10-week season got under way, and springtime temperatures that were colder than in 2012 and 2013 also contributed to last year’s reduced catch.
Concerns about the impact of elver fishing on stocks of American eels, which are being considered for listing as an endangered species, led the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to place an 11,749-pound catch limit on the fishery last year, but still the statewide catch total came in below that imposed quota.
With the fishery’s reduced value, elvers became the fourth-most valuable commercially harvested species in Maine in 2014, behind lobster, softshell clams and herring, in that order. The value of the softshell clam fishery increased by more than $1.1 million last year to $19.2 million, even as the volume of landings declined from 11.25 million pounds to 9.7 million pounds.
Maine’s scallop fishery increased in volume and value in 2014, state officials added. Fishermen caught 78,335 more pounds of scallop meat in 2014 than the prior year, hauling in a total of 584,173 pounds. Statewide, scallop fishermen earned $7.4 million for their efforts, an increase of more than $1.8 million.
Overall, thanks to an $86 million increase in the value of the state’s iconic lobster fishery — by far the biggest commercial fishery in Maine — the total dockside value of all commercially harvested species in the state increased by more than $44 million from the prior year, reaching an all-time high of $585.3 million, according to Department of Marine Resources officials.
Lobster fishermen are hopeful that cold temperatures this winter will help produce another good crop of hardshell lobsters that will be in high demand by consumers. For many lobstermen, 2014 was a marked improvement over 2012 and 2013, when warm water led to unseasonably high landings in the spring, causing a supply glut that pushed prices down severely.
Officials with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, however, caution that cold temperatures in the gulf could delay the timing of when lobsters start showing up in heavy numbers in Maine fishermen’s traps this summer.
To help lobstermen, dealers, processors and distributors anticipate the annual onset of landings, Gulf of Maine Research Institute has developed a forecast model that calculates the odds of when it will occur — and their scientists say there is a near 70 percent chance the usual catch increase will happen in middle to late July, instead of earlier in the month.
Gulf of Maine Research Institute officials said in a press release that they plan to update the forecast each week and to post the latest percentages at gmri.org/lobster-forecast.