Elver prices soar to new heights amid shortage, Asian demand

By PATRICK WHITTLEMarketsAssociated Press

The price of baby eels in Maine is soaring to record highs at the start of a season in which buyers expect to pay more for the valuable fish.

Baby eels, called elvers, are an important part of the worldwide Japanese food trade. Maine fishermen harvest them from rivers and streams so they can be sold as seed stock to Asian aquaculture companies.

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The average price per pound to fishermen through the first week of the 2018 season was $2,608, the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Friday. The most elvers have ever sold for in a full season was $2,172 per pound, in 2015, and they sold for a little more than $1,300 per pound last year.

Fishermen in Maine, which has the only significant elver fishery in the U.S., are poised for high prices this year because of a poor harvest in Asia. The early part of Maine's season has been held back somewhat by bad weather, but harvesters are looking forward to a good year, said Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.

"Hoping that when there's eels around, they fight over them," Young said. "When mother nature decides she wants to turn around."

The season opened March 22, and fishermen had about 95 percent of their 9,688 pound quota remaining through Thursday evening, the state marine agency reported on its website. The season runs until June 7, and the first week was somewhat slow, which fishermen expected at the end of a cold winter.

The elvers are raised to maturity so they can be used to make Japanese dishes, such as unadon, which consists of fillets of eel over rice, and kabayaki, which is grilled eel on a skewer.

A lack of eels to catch in Asia and Europe has caused the price of elvers to soar in the last several years, and made Maine's formerly obscure elver fishery very lucrative. The state expects this to be a particularly strong year.

"At double the average per pound value of last year's harvest, the season is starting off with great promise for Maine harvesters," said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "It might be slow now, but we expect landings to pick up as the season progresses and water temperatures begin to climb."