Slow elver season start means high prices; fishermen doubt they'll catch full baby eel quota

Maine's baby eel season is off to a slow start, causing prices to balloon back to historic levels as fishermen wait for waterways to finish thawing.

Elvers, also called glass eels, are sold overseas as seed stock for Asian aquaculture companies that raise them to maturity and sell them as food. Maine fishermen are by far the largest supplier of elvers in the U.S. Some end up back in America in restaurants as sushi.

The fishery for the baby eels is one of the most valuable in Maine, even though value dropped in 2014. Fishermen caught 9,690 pounds of elvers last year at an average price of $874.52 per pound, according to state data.

This season, which began March 22, prices are back up to more than $1,800 per pound, as they were in 2012 and 2013, state regulators and fishermen say.

The high price isn't much of a boon to fishermen because Maine's rivers and streams remain too cold to lure elvers away from warmer saltwater, said Darrell Young, an Ellsworth elver fisherman. The price is close to $2,000 per pound in some areas, he said, but the catch is so scant that fishermen aren't sure they'll reach their quota this year. Maine fishermen face a maximum catch of 9,688 pounds, and the season ends May 31.

"I don't think we're going to have enough time to catch our quota because by the time the eels start running it's going to be a four-week season," Young said. "The old rule is when the ponds thaw out, the eels will start running."

Elver season started slow last year because of cold weather, as well. Anecdotes from fishermen suggest the volume of catch is about on par with last year at this point, said Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

"We are hearing that things are picking up with the warmer weather," Nichols said.

Maine elvers exploded in volume and value in the early part of the decade when foreign sources dried up. The fishery topped $40 million in 2012, eventually spurring new regulations including quotas and a swipe-card system that helps to deter poaching by tracking catches. Last year's elver fishery was valued at $8.5 million — more than historical levels, but well off the boom years of 2012 and 2013.

In the United States, Only Maine and South Carolina have elver fisheries, and Maine's is much larger. A regulatory board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to allow other East Coast states to begin elver fisheries last year if they create an approved conservation program. States were also allowed to raise and harvest elvers for domestic aquaculture under certain conditions.

A spokeswoman for the commission said no states have submitted plans to take advantage of the rule changes.