In this May 25, 2017 file photo, baby eels, also known as elvers, are held in Brewer, Maine. Due to coronavirus concerns, state officials have delayed the start of the 2020 elver season, which had been expected to begin on Sunday, by at least two weeks. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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The start of Maine’s annual, multi-million dollar commercial baby eel season, which had been scheduled to start Sunday, is being delayed for at least two weeks due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. It’s the latest example of the sizable economic hit Maine’s fishermen are taking as the global pandemic shuts down much of daily life.

The fishery might open on April 5, depending on the status of the outbreak, state officials said. In each of the past two years, Maine’s 10-week fishing season for baby eels — also known as “glass” eels or elvers — has generated totals of more than $20 million in statewide landings revenue for roughly 1,000 licensed elver fishermen.

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“Portions of the elver fishery make it impossible to follow social distancing recommendations, including maintaining 6 feet from other people to reduce the spread of this disease,” Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Saturday. He added that, while he recognizes that the closure of the fishery may be “devastating” to people who rely on it, “the safety of our fishermen and their communities is our primary concern.”

Even if the fishery were to start on time and if COVID-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — was not likely to spread among Mainers in the industry, the global impact of the pandemic is likely to have a substantial effect on Maine’s fisheries, which ship products all over the world and last year generated $673 million in total fishing revenue statewide, state officials said.

Elver fishermen already have been concerned that the disease will greatly reduce demand for the baby eels in Asia and thereby result in lower prices for their catch, for which fishermen last year earned more than $2,000 per pound on average. Most elvers caught in Maine are shipped live to China, where the global coronavirus outbreak started, and then are grown to market size before being shipped to Japan and other countries to supply the consumer seafood market.

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On Saturday, Gov. Janet Mills said market disruptions caused by the global outbreak could reduce the value of Maine’s eel fishery by 90 percent. Maine’s dominant lobster fishery, the 2019 harvest of which was worth $485 million, could face a $50 million loss for the first half of 2020, she added. Most of the lobster caught in Maine each year is harvested in late summer and early fall.

Other Maine fishermen — including Maine’s scallop draggers and divers, shellfish aquaculture growers, and softshell clam harvesters — could face losses of 50 percent for the year in each of those multimillion-dollar fisheries, Mills said.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, she urged his administration to consider providing direct financial assistance to Maine’s seafood industry, saying that it is facing the collapse of global and local markets.

“In the short-term, harvesters have only limited opportunities within their communities to sell small quantities of product in the hopes of earning just enough money to buy weekly groceries,” Mills wrote to Trump. “In the long-term, it is clear that the collapse of the international and larger domestic markets will devastate Maine’s commercial fisheries.”

As in other states, industries in Maine that are facing or soon expect to face major losses due to the global pandemic include the restaurant business, the lodging business, tourism businesses that cater to cruise ships, and entertainment and sports businesses.

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Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....