ELLSWORTH — Elver fishing season opened on March 22 but, while Downeast stream banks are blossoming with fyke nets, at least so far, the juvenile eels that can fetch $2,000 per pound or more when the market is hot have been pretty scarce.
“Everyone set their nets to save their spots,” Darrell Young, an elver harvester from Franklin, said Monday morning. “The water’s too cold. I haven’t even started fishing yet.”
According to Young, fishermen with nets in the Union River have been landing only a few eels at a time.
“I spoke to one girl,” Young said. “She had 50 eels in her net.”
That’s not many, considering that it takes about 2,000 elvers to total a pound.
The few elvers that fishermen have been taking haven’t been of very good quality either.
“They’re weak. They don’t want to buy them,” Young said.
Weak or not, the few elvers that have been coming to market are fetching a reasonably good price.
On Monday, Bill Sheldon, one of the biggest buyers among the state’s 20 or so licensed elver dealers, said he was paying fishermen $1,300 per pound for the few elvers he was seeing.
“It’s been cold. The catch is very slow.” Sheldon said, speaking by telephone from his Ellsworth buying station. “We’re waiting for warm weather. Then the catch will rise.”
Fishing under an annual quota imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2015, Maine harvesters may land no more than 9,688 pounds of elvers. Of that, 21.9 percent – some 2,121.7 pounds – is allocated to Maine’s four federally recognized Indian tribes.
Last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources, the state’s elver landings – tribal and nontribal – totaled 9,400 pounds worth $13,446,828, an average price of $1,430 per pound.
In 2015, the first year during which the Maine fishery was limited by the quota, a cold, dry spring delayed the migration of elvers from the sea into the rivers where harvesters set their gear. As a result, Maine fishermen landed just 5,259 pounds of the tiny creatures, little more than half the 9,688-pound quota. That season saw an average price of some $2,171 per pound.
The ASMFC is expected to revisit the state’s elver quota later this year. That could be good news for Maine fishermen.
Over the past few years, the state has opened “more than 2 million acres” of habitat to elvers as a result of dam removals, culvert repairs and other actions, Young said. If the ASMFC accepts that figure, Maine could see its elver quota climb as high as 12,000 pounds.
Despite this year’s slow start, Young and Sheldon both sounded optimistic.
“I don’t think we’ll have any trouble catching our quota this year,” Young said.
According to Sheldon, the prospects for this year’s elver market are reasonably good, though it’s too early to know for sure.
“It seems like a normal year,” he said. “It’s hard to tell. “There’s similar demand and similar prices to last year.”