Maine’s baby eel fishermen are enjoying a steady harvest and strong prices during the first season in which regulators are using new controls to stop poaching.
Baby eels, called elvers, are one of the most lucrative marine resources in the U.S. on a per-pound basis, but the fishery has had problems with poaching. This year, packing and shipping of the fish is subject to more scrutiny by the Maine Marine Patrol.
Fishermen are more than 90 percent of the way through their quota for the year, which is slightly less than 10,000 pounds. The average price is more than $2,000 per pound, which would be the third highest average on record if holds, state officials said.
“For the guys who want to do the right thing and grow this fishery, they’re happy to comply,” said Jeffrey Pierce, a former state legislator who is an adviser to the Maine Elver Fishermen Association. “All the reports are that it has been a decent year despite the dreary weather.”
The elvers are caught with nets in Maine’s cold rivers and streams, often in the dead of night in frigid conditions. The Maine Department of Marine Resources added a requirement this year that elver exporters in the state must notify the Maine Marine Patrol 48 hours before preparing to pack and ship the eels. The officer is assigned to witness the weighing and packing of the elvers, and mark the package with a seal that must remain intact until the eels reach their destination.
State officials have said that the new measures, along with a swipe card system that is used to track sales, will prevent illegal deals that have hounded the industry in the past. Maine is the only state with a significant fishery for elvers, and the demand for the tiny fish has motivated some fishermen to try to cheat the system in recent years. Last year’s season was shut down by state regulators two weeks early after investigators found that illegal sales caused the state to exceed quota.
Mitchell Feigenbaum, an elver dealer and exporter who runs Maine Eel Trade and Aquaculture in Waldoboro, Maine, said the state has succeeded in “rolling out these rules in a way that was not disruptive to the flow of business.”
The elvers are sold to Asian aquaculture culture companies so they can be raised to maturity and used as food, such as in sushi dishes. The season began in March and ends on June 7 or when the quota limit is reached.