Maine will soon let new people into its valuable baby eel fishery for the first time in several years, and fishermen are hopeful they could soon be allowed to catch more of the wriggling critters.
The baby eels, called elvers, are often worth more than $1,000 per pound to fishermen. They're sold to Asian aquaculture companies to be raised to maturity for use as food, such as unagi, which sometimes travels all the way back to America for sale in Japanese restaurants.
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Maine limits the number of elver fishing licenses to 425. The state is holding a lottery to give away 13 licenses, which will be the first new licenses distributed since 2013, officials said. The deadline to apply is Jan. 15.
Maine fishermen are allowed to harvest a total of about 9,700 pounds of elvers in a short fishing season that happens every spring. However, the interstate Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering tweaking the rules about the fishery, and fishermen are primed to ask for a bump in quota.
The elvers are an important resource for commercial fishermen and members of American Indian tribes, said Darrell Young, the co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen's Association.
"Everybody will benefit — tribal members and non-tribal," Young said.
Maine's the only state in the country with a significant fishery for elvers. The state's elvers have been in high demand since foreign sources dried up in Asia and Europe. Regulators began the quota system in 2014 after a surge in harvest.
The Atlantic States commission is scheduled to vote on Feb. 6 on whether to send potential rule changes about the elver fishery out for public comment. The potential changes are still in development, said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission. Changes to the quota wouldn't apply until the 2019 season, she said.
Meanwhile, Maine fishermen are approaching the final day to apply for a slot in the elver lottery. Applicants who prefer to submit paper applications were required to do so at the Maine Department of Marine Resources offices in Augusta by 4:30 p.m. on Friday. The deadline to enter the lottery online is Jan. 15 at 5 p.m.
The date of the lottery itself has not been set. The fishing season starts March 22.
This story has been corrected to say that the date of the lottery has not been set.