ELLSWORTH — The commercial elver fishery opened for the 2021 season on March 22 for Maine fishermen who hold a license for the lucrative commercial market.
And while 2020 may have been an elver season unlike any other, the 2021 season will be conducted with the same COVID-19 protocols in place. For a second consecutive year, harvesters may fish for and sell the quota of another licensed harvester provided they follow the necessary COVID-19 protocols.
Under this rule, first introduced for the 2020 season, a license holder may fish and sell elvers for several license holders but may not “take, possess or sell” more pounds of elvers than the aggregate quota of all the license holders for whom they are fishing.
A new rule for 2021 requires fishermen to check their nets every 16 hours so as to limit bycatch and elver mortality rates.
“New fishermen all the time are getting into the industry and sometimes don’t check nets for three or four days,” Maine Elver Association President Darrell Young said. “When they come back, there could be 1 pound of live eels and 1 pound of dead ones.”
And what fishermen wants to find dead elvers in their nets when prices may double from the 2020 harvester price that averaged $506 a pound?
“It’s good the prices are up because everything else is going up,” Young noted. “They’re saying $1,000 a pound.”
Dealers were shelling out over $2,000 per pound to elver fishermen just two years ago but, like nearly every area of life and industry, pandemic-related import restrictions drastically lowered the 2020 demand from China and other East Asia countries, the largest importers of elvers.
Prices for Maine elvers first began to rise in 2011 following a 2010 European ban on eel exports in the wake of the 2011 tsunami in Japan that devastated its elver fishery. By 2019, prices had risen to over $2,300 per pound. So, while elvers only accounted for 3 percent of Maine’s commercial landings that year, the catch brought in $20,119,194, making it the second most valuable fishery after lobster, for the total 9,620-pound catch.
Along with the 2021 elver fishing season comes hopes for higher prices as the sight of nets stretched along the banks of the Union River in Ellsworth and the waterways that elvers, also known as glass eels, travel through.
“There’ll be some eels around. Just don’t call them baby eels,” Young said, speaking to his personal preference — and do not share where you fish. “Where you put your nets is secret.”
The elver fishery is limited by the number of licenses the Department of Marine Resources allows. For 2021, the DMR renewed 425 licenses with a total catch of 9,688 pounds, an amount determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Council. New licenses are awarded through a lottery system based on the number of unrenewed licenses, and no new licenses were available this year. A lottery is expected for new elver licenses for the 2022 season.
The COVID-19 protocols for fishermen and dealers include keeping a 6-foot distance from others, spreading out fishing on waterways as much as possible, the expectation that fishermen will sell a minimum of 1 pound or more per transaction to limit contact between harvesters and dealers and limiting travel and travel companions in the same vehicle.
In addition, fishermen should make appointments with elver dealers and not just show up, bring their own pen to sign receipts and stay inside their car until instructed by the dealer. The remaining protocols, such as frequent hand washing, are standard for pandemic life ever since Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention first issued protocols one year ago.