Elver season is winding down as almost 8,000 pounds of the tiny glassine eels have been pulled from Maine waters, including the Pemaquid and Medomak rivers in Lincoln County.
The elver fishery is the second most valuable fishery in Maine despite its brief season, lasting only 11 weeks from March 22 to June 7. Recent years have seen annual income generated by the fishery exceed $20 million. And from a per pound perspective it easily tops lobsters as the most lucrative fishery in the state, and possibly in the country.
High demand for the young eels overseas spiked the price to over $2,800 per pound in 2018. After plummeting to around $500 in 2020 due to the pandemic, prices have recovered and are averaging $2,114 per pound this year, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The demand for elvers is driven by the overseas market where baby eels are grown to size in specially designed aquaculture facilities for use in Asian cuisine. Once mature, the eels are also processed and shipped back to the U.S. where they are a popular dish on sushi menus.
While still in its infancy, U.S.-based eel aquaculture is poised to be another factor in the fishery. American Unagi’s Waldoboro facility is buying elvers this year. And Cory Hawkes, a dealer with Maine Eel Trade and Aquaculture, in business since 2011, said his company has a long-term goal of raising eels to size as part of its business model.
With so much money at stake, the fishery is closely regulated to protect the future of the resource. A quota system was implemented in 2013 with limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries, an interstate regulatory body.
A swipe card system is in place to tally the catch against the quota in real time. While there have been violations of the system in the past, Communications Director Jeff Nichols said the DMR has been very pleased with the ability of the swipe cards to ensure the elver population is protected.
The quota is usually set at 9,688 pounds, but was reduced to 9,334 pounds this year due to overfishing in 2021.
The quota is divided between individually licensed fishermen and four federally recognized tribes: The Penobscot Nation, Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
A contingent of the Passamaquoddy makes an annual pilgrimage from Pleasant Point and Indian Township, both near the Canadian border, to fish the Pemaquid Falls Landing in Bristol.
“There’s a lot of tribal history with this river,” said Amkuwiposohehs “Pos” Bassett. The elver fishery is important to the Passamaquoddy, a key part of their livelihood.
A number of tribe members come early and set up camp at the Bristol Historical Society’s building where they have permission to park and have access to power and water. Some start scouting locations a month ahead of time, looking for optimal places to set their nets, sections of the river with choke points that force the flow of elvers in specific directions. They often go out at night to see how the eels are migrating.
Charles Libby said that most of the tribal fishermen use fyke nets, long nets with wings that guide the elvers toward a funnel-shaped section where they are trapped. A few, like his brother Hunter who is new to the fishery, use dip nets which are less expensive, especially for a first-timer.
Justin Socobasin has fished in Bristol for six years. “I’ve always done well here so I don’t see any reason to go anywhere else,” he said. “All my friends are usually here.”
He fishes with a fyke net set by the landing ledge where the currents are slower. “Dipping’s hard on the back,” he said of the only other approved method to catch the elvers. “It’s nice when you can just set your net and go check it when the tide comes back down.”
Zachary Cling said setting the nets can be a roll of the dice, trying one place and moving the net if it’s not productive.
“Not all the spots catch,” agreed Socobasin.
“It’s a free for all in the beginning,” Bassett said. The Passamaquoddy have an internal lottery system, dividing their 1,002 pound quota into five-pound increments. “There’s a lot of anxiety to make the individual quota before the tribe totals out.”
Other fishermen are either grandfathered into the fishery or receive licenses through a lottery system available to Maine residents 15 years of age or older. There is a cap of 425 licenses for individual fishermen; in the most recent lottery 2,637 individuals applied for only 13 available licenses.
The longer term elver fishermen have quotas based on their historic harvests prior to 2013, but the individual quota for newer licensees is typically around four pounds.
Bob Crocker came up to Pemaquid Falls landing from Freeport. Crocker has fished from the area for many years, dating back to the 1990s when prices were much lower and there were no quotas. “It’s a good early spot to come to,” he said.
Crocker, who is also a clammer, called the elver season “a good little filler” to earn better money when the prices for clams are low.
Maine Eel Trade and Aquaculture is the largest dealer in the state with four locations, two in Lincoln County. About half of the state’s elver landings come through its hub in Waldoboro. This year they also operated a satellite facility at the Pemaquid Falls Landing to better serve the tribal fishermen.
Co-owner Cory Hawkes said for him elver season is about “sleepless nights, endless phone calls and much stress.”
“There’s a lot of competition,” he said. “With a short season and a limited quota, fishermen shop around.”
Expenses are significant and finding a seasonal crew is always an issue. “They have to have knowledge,” Hawkes said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and every piece of this puzzle is equally important to make it all happen. If the gel packs aren’t right and how the eels are packed (isn’t right) they will die in flight. Every job is crucial.”
Hawkes said they try to keep losses of product under 5%, but “it’s all a risk with a perishable item.”
According to Hawkes, the price has been pretty even this year. “I think the fishermen overall are happy for an average that’s been very fair,” he said.
While some fishermen have held their catch in hopes of prices heading north, Hawkes said he doesn’t expect to see a significant increase in the final few weeks.
Hawkes, along with other owners and investors in the dealership, is also a fisherman “We all have an interest in a high price,” he said. He called fishing the more lucrative side of the business, but having a dealer who can transport the product is what makes the fishery work.
At the end of the 2021 elver season the catch topped out at 8,960.97 pounds out of an available 9,620.70 pounds, with an average price of $1,849 per pound and a total value of $16.56 million, according to data from the Maine DMR.
Preliminary 2022 elver landings through 6 p.m. April 11 indicate a catch so far of 7,992 pounds out of 9,334 available pounds with an average price per pound of $2,114, and a reported value of $16,894,819 which could place this year’s catch back near the $20 million mark.