As the small but lucrative elver season kicked off on 22 March in Maine, U.S.A. the price-per-pound for the baby eels hit record high prices.
Home to the only significant fishery for elvers in the U.S.A., Maine’s season runs between 22 March and 7 June each year. After the first few days of fishing, the Maine Department of Marine Resources reported on 31 March that the average price being paid by buyers in the state for eels was USD 2,511 (EUR 2,035) per pound, and a total of 559 pounds (254 kilograms) have been caught so far, totaling a USD 1.4 million (EUR 1.1 million) catch.
Prior to 2014, the fishery had no catch limits, but after a series of record catches totaling over of 20,000 pounds (9,000 kilograms) the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission set the statewide catch limit at 9,688 pounds (4,394 kilograms). That limit is spread between fishermen licensed by the state of Maine, and those licensed by one of four of the state’s Native American tribes: the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.
The season has reportedly been off to a slow start, with fishermen citing the still-cold water as the primary reason the baby eels aren’t showing up yet. Water temperatures, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, were only just above freezing when the season started due to snow melt.
In advance of the season, prices were already expected to be high thanks to low catches in Japan, which is one of the primary markets for the baby eels. Reports in The Japan News said that the total catch of japonica eels – the variety caught in Japan – was slightly lower than 20 percent of the normal total as the season was coming to a close on 1 April. That low catch brought extremely high prices for the eels, around JPY 4 million (USD 37,650, EUR 30,560) per pound.
Japan uses the baby eels as seed stock for aquaculture operations. With the shortage of elvers looming, the price of eel may be set to increase drastically.
Demand for Maine-based elvers increased after natural and regulatory factors constricted the supply of Asian and European eels. In Europe, stricter rules have reportedly cut the amount of poached eels being sold in half.
Maine House Representative Jeffrey Pierce, (R-Dresden) serves as the state’s consultant on the elver industry. He said the price could climb even higher as the season goes on.
“I think it’s going to be a great year for the fishery, honestly,” he said. “I dare not speculate, but I’ve heard from some people that you might see over the five-, six-, seven-thousand dollar mark for guys that come in with big poundage.”
Pierce credits Maine’s efforts to curtail poaching, coupled with tighter regulations on catch limits and better tracking of all elver buyers and fishermen, for the success of the fishery. After the price of the baby eels spiked in 2013, the fishermen and organizations representing them worked together with state legislators to ensure the fishery would remain sustainable.
“The Maine elver fishermen have done such a good job at cleaning up this fishery, implementing the swipe cards and stamping out poaching,” Pierce said. “The legislators, the bills, the laws we implemented to strengthen the enforcement piece, while also protecting the fishermen – this is the payoff for doing the right thing, it really is.”
In 2013, the sudden spike in price-per-pound to thousands of dollars left the fishery and the state scrambling to keep up. In an environment akin to the Wild West, buyers and fishermen alike were carrying firearms for protection as they drove around with enormous sums of money in their vehicles.
Now, swipe cards given to each fishermen track their actions, and the days of wads of cash being carried around are over. The state only offers licenses to a few hundred individuals, who can reapply for them each year. Any license that comes up for grabs is granted via a lottery system to those who apply. This past year saw the first lottery since 2013, when 11 new licenses became available. More than 3,000 people applied and paid the $25 fee for the slim chance of obtaining one of those 11 licenses, and some people applied multiple times.
As more details of the catch in Japan become clear, and the remaining 9,021 pound (4,091 kilogram) quota starts to be used up, the price may rise even higher. Pierce said that would be a welcome boon to the local economy.
“Last year we were a $26 million fishery, all of that money stayed in the state of Maine,” he said.