ELLSWORTH — Maine elver fishermen made more than $12 million last year, landing just about 9,300 pounds of the 9,688-pound catch quota allotted to them by fisheries regulators.
There’s no telling how many elvers fishermen will land during the 2018 fishery, slated to begin March 22 and end June 7, or what those landings will earn harvesters, but the odds are good that the 2019 fishery will be worth more. At the least, Maine fishermen likely will have a chance to catch more of the tiny, transparent juvenile eels, which can fetch more than $2,000 per pound, than they have in quite a while.
Earlier this month in Arlington, Va., the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to consider an increase in the Maine elver quota from its current level of 9,688 pounds to 11,749 pounds, the same as it was in 2014. According to Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols, that represented a 35 percent reduction from 2013 landings.
At the hearing, Jeffrey Pierce, a member of the Maine Legislature and former executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, asked the commissioners to raise the quota to 14,000 pounds. He said the increase was justified, in part, because Maine has no quota for pigmented, adult “yellow eels,” no longer allows the harvest of silver eels and because the state had “addressed poaching in a very successful manner.”
With the average price of elvers last year at $1,302, according to the DMR, that 2,061-pound increase could mean an extra $2.7 million or so in harvesters’ pockets if they fill the quota and the price doesn’t go down in the face of increased supply.
All in all, a $15 million fishery wouldn’t be bad, but it would be nowhere near what the elver fishery earned in is brightest years.
In 2012, Maine harvesters landed some 21,611 pounds of elvers, netting some $40.4 million. A year later, landings dropped to 18,080 pounds, with the catch valued at a little more than $32.9 million.
Maine currently is the only state with a commercially significant elver, or glass eel, fishery. Virtually all of the elvers landed in the state are flown to China or elsewhere in the Far East, where they are raised in aquaculture facilities to market size to be used in sushi restaurants in Japan and around the world.
Maine currently caps the number of elver fishing licenses it issues at 425. Earlier this year, a state-run lottery selected 11 of more than 3,000 participants as eligible to apply for available licenses. (Some entered the lottery multiple times; the total number of entries was 8,093.) The deadline for applications is March 1.
Since 2014, Maine has required harvesters and dealers to use a magnetic swipe card system to help track elvers from the stream bank to the exporter and requires a pound-for-pound “payback” of any overage of the annual quota.
Maine also has begun a fishery-independent life cycle survey covering all life stages of the state’s eel population. Maine began a monitoring program in 2016, but sample collecting was not completed because of administrative issues at the DMR and severe drought conditions. A program the department hopes will be more effective began last year, but results have yet to be released.
Public hearings on the new eel plan addendum will be scheduled throughout the spring in each state along the Atlantic Coast, including Maine.