ELLSWORTH, Maine — Few people would suggest that 2011 was a good year economically in Maine, but for one group it turned out to be a banner year.
Now that Maine’s 2012 elver fishing season is about to begin, elver fishery observers are wondering if the value of the catch will remain at unprecedented highs. The season starts March 22 and runs through the end of May.
Elvers are small eels that swim upstream from the sea into fresh water in the spring. They are caught mainly with funnel-shaped fyke nets that fishermen place along the banks of tidal rivers and waterways. In recent years the demand for elvers has gone up in east Asia, where they are cultivated for the seafood industry.
That demand is the main reason that the average annual price elver fishermen in Maine got last year spiked to nearly $900 per pound, while in some areas it was even higher.
In 2010 the average per-pound price for the season was less than $200 per pound.
One of the licensed elver fishermen, Rustin Taylor of Bar Harbor, was in downtown Ellsworth around noon Wednesday. He was getting an advance look at the section of the Union River near the Route 1 bridge where he sets the one net he is licensed to use.
Taylor said the pending start of the elver season at noon Thursday was making him anxious.
“The price is going up already,” he said, adding that opening day prices are expected to be over $1,000 per pound. “There’s a lot of interest.”
Taylor said he was anxious because with fishing you never really know what you’re going to get. He works as a sternman on a lobster boat from late spring through the fall, he said, and the added money he gets from elver fishing is an important part of his yearly income.
“It is stressful, it really is,” Taylor said. “I’m hoping there will be eels to catch, the price will stay where it is, and Mother Nature cooperates with us.”
Taylor said he heard anecdotal stories last year about elver fishermen buying new trucks or putting down payments on new homes with their elver income. He said he didn’t make that kind of money, but still he did well.
Dealers started out the 2011 season offering around $250 per pound, which is not unusual, Taylor said. But then it went up from there.
“It doubled to $500, which was really good because $400 is usually a good price,” he said.
Then it doubled again in the Ellsworth area to $1,000 per pound and stayed there, he added.
“It was a good year,” he said.
Sgt. Marlowe Sonksen of Maine Marine Patrol said Wednesday that he expects the 2012 elver season to be a busy one for him and the marine patrol officers under his supervision, who cover the midcoast and tidal waterways between the St. George and Penobscot rivers. The price last year, he said, resulted in more illegal elver fishing than usual. Already in the past week, before the start of the season, there have been people out using hand nets at night trying to catch elvers and avoid marine patrol at the same time, he added.
“The interest makes our jobs busier,” Sonksen said. “This year the price is predicted by dealers to be even higher.”
Lt. Dale Sprowl, who oversees marine patrol operations between the St. George River and the Canadian boundary, said the high price has definitely raised the fishery’s profile, though it remains relatively small.
“It could be a crazy year for us,” Sprowl said.
Elver fishermen cumulatively caught more than 8,500 pounds of eels in 2011 and were paid $7.6 million for their trouble. With the number of elver licenses capped at last year’s level of 407, that would work out to an average income of less than $19,000 per licensed fisherman.
By contrast, Maine’s 5,000 or so licensed commercial lobstermen caught more than 100 million pounds of lobster last year and received a total of more than $331 million for their catch, for a rough average of $60,000 per lobsterman.
The volume of elver landings in 2011, though higher than they had been in a decade, were not all that remarkable. The preliminary estimate for the total amount of elvers caught in Maine last year was 8,585 pounds. In 2010 it was 3,158 and the year before that it was 5,199, according to official DMR statistics.
As for value, before last year the highest average annual price elver fishermen had ever gotten for their catch was just under $350 per pound in 2007. Since the 1990s, it has been below $100 per pound several times and, in the early 2000s, it was below $30 per pound for three years in a row.
According to Dr. Gail Wipplehauser of DMR, the high value of the fishery might not last indefinitely. Some environmental groups have petitioned federal regulators to list the eels as endangered, which could result in a prohibition on elver fishing.
Wippelhauser wrote Wednesday in an email that such a listing is not expected to occur before Maine’s elver season ends at the end of May. She said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a determination about the proposed listing sometime this summer.
“My guess it will be issued [in] late June,” Wippelhauser wrote.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.