Now is a very good time to be an elver fisherman.
Elvers, commonly known as glass eels, are the young of the American eel. They are almost completely clear and only a few centimeters long, but nonetheless obviously eel-like in appearance, with a long slender body and two black eyes on either side of their head.
They are also a tiny fish worth $950 per pound right now.
“It’s ludicrous,” said Pat Bryant, co-owner of PB Eel in Nobleboro and the matriarch of a family of eel fishermen. Pat Bryant has run PB Eel with her husband, Paul Bryant, out of their home on Duck Puddle Road for over 30 years.
Pat Bryant is also a part of the Maine Eel and Elver Committee and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The last few seasons, $200 to $300 was considered a high price for elvers, and only six or seven years ago they sold for $25 per pound.
Most elvers are shipped to Southeast Asia where they’re raised in artificial ponds until they’re big enough to eat. Demand in Asian markets has driven the price in Maine to the current historic highs.
This year has been a bad year for the local eels in that part of the world. Europe, another major exporter of eels, has ceased exporting them this year. In the U.S., only Maine and South Carolina operate elver fisheries.
The Bryants and their daughter Sherrie Spaziano are some of the lucky few Maine fishermen with elver licenses. There are only 399 licensed elver fishermen in Maine this year, and only those who held a license in the previous year are allowed to apply for a new one.
“If you forget to renew one year, you can’t get a new one,” said the Bryants’ granddaughter Devon Jones, a shop attendant at PB Eel, “and a lot of people who didn’t bother to get a license this year, because last year was not so good, are angry now.”
With prices where they are, a fisherman can make thousands of dollars in a few hours. Pat Bryant said a pair of fishermen recently brought 45 pounds of elvers – an incredibly good day by elver fishing standards – to PB Eel.
At $950 per pound, that’s $42,750 in one day.
The high prices and limited access to licenses has led to an increase in illegal elver fishing, many sources related to the fishery said.
For about $50 in equipment, a fisherman can bring in several pounds of eels per day. The Marine Patrol has limited resources for fisheries enforcement, and the fine for poaching elvers is only $250.
Poachers need only to find someone with an elver license willing to sell their eels for them.
Marine Patrol has increased enforcement this year in response to the high prices, Bryant said.
The embargo on new licenses began in 2006 in response to complaints from the public, said Gail Wippelhauser, a scientist at the Dept. of Marine Resources. Although some of those complaints were related to over fishing and declining populations, the decision to limit fishing was largely in response to complaints of property damage, fights and general disturbance from landowners on the rivers where elvers are taken.
At the height of elver fishing, in the mid 1990s, there were about 3000 licensed elver fishermen in Maine, Bryant said. At times, there were as many as 150 nets in a small section of the Pemaquid River.
“It was way too much,” she said.
The elver fisheries in other states have closed for similar reasons.
“New Jersey was one of the last fish them,” Bryant said. “They closed their fishery after someone got shot.”
In light rain around noon on May 10, Bryant and Spaziano dumped elvers into a bucket from their nets on the Pemaquid River, and they reminisced about kinder – albeit less lucrative – days in elver fishing.
“We used to dip a lot more,” Spaziano said. Elver fishermen use one of two kinds of nets: dip nets, which are used to scoop eels from the river by hand; and fyke nets, which are funnel shaped and set in the river to fill with elvers as they swim upstream.
Now, Maine law restricts elver fishermen to two pieces of gear so most have two fyke nets and don’t dip anymore.
“It also used to be safe,” Spaziano said. “People get nasty.”
Fishermen of all stripes are frequently territorial, and it’s common for elver nets to get slashed when turf lines are crossed, or a net is perceived to be cutting into someone else’s catch.
When the Bryants first started elver fishing in the 1970s, there were only 12 fishermen in Maine, and the only buyer was in South Carolina. The Bryants started PB Eels, buying in Maine and shipping them down to South Carolina. They are now one of four international elver exporters in Maine.
For years, the Bryants or someone who worked for them did almost all the elver fishing in Lincoln County. Pat Bryant ran a hair salon, and the stylists were all her elver fishermen.
She remembers a day when they lost power at their home. Without electricity, the holding tanks full of elvers in their shop are useless for keeping the eels alive.
“Every stylist but one left the salon, with women sitting there under the dryers, and we raced back to the house,” Bryant said. “We were all down in the pond in heels and miniskirts, hauling buckets of water in trucks. We had to save the eels.”
On May 10, the Bryants and Spaziano cleared their nets and reset them and loaded a few buckets of elvers, river water and sand fleas into the back of their old Toyota station wagon.
“Not great today,” Pat Bryant said, “but at $950 a pound, how good does it have to be?”
Now is a very good time to be an elver fisherman.