ELLSWORTH, Maine — Four Mainers were selected this week in a lottery to award new licenses in the state’s elver fishery, which, given the soaring value of the juvenile eels, may be more like winning an actual cash lottery.

The winners are Mark Wakem of Poland, Alyssa Orestis of Searsport, Meredith Perry of Spruce Head and Garrett Lemoine of Swan’s Island, each of whom was given a license to use hand-dip nets in the fishery. Attempts Thursday to contact the four lottery winners were unsuccessful.

According to the state Department of Marine Resources, more than 5,000 Mainers applied for the lottery.

The value of elvers, juvenile American eels also known as “glass eels,” has skyrocketed in recent years as demand for them has spiked in Asia. In 2009, the average price per pound that the state’s 407 licensed elver fishermen earned for their catch was $99, which resulted in an overall value of $519,000 for elver landings that year, according to DMR statistics.

In 2012, the average per-pound price that elver fishermen were getting for their catch at the end of the 10-week season was $2,600, up from nearly $900 per pound in 2011. DMR officials have estimated that the overall value of the elver harvest in Maine in 2012 was more than $40 million, which would make the fishery the second most valuable in Maine behind the state’s $335 million lobster fishery.

“Last year the elver fishery proved to be one of Maine’s most lucrative and the department is pleased to provide an opportunity for Mainers to benefit from this valuable resource,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday.

Elvers spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and then migrate each spring to shore and upstream into fresh water, where they grow into adults that eventually return to sea to breed. Elvers that are caught in Maine are shipped to the Far East, where they are cultivated in ponds into adults before being sold in the region’s seafood market.

Officials have said the price spike has been fueled by tighter limits on eel harvests in Europe and destruction of eel stocks in Japan from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck in March 2011. Maine and South Carolina, which issues only a handful of licenses each year, are the only two states where elver fishing is allowed.

On Monday, DMR chose four other people who had been licensed to use dip nets for upgrades to fyke nets — large, funnel-shaped nets that can capture more elvers than the hand-dip nets.

Three fyke net permit holders, who were licensed for a total of four fyke nets, chose not to renew their licenses after the season ended last year, according to DMR officials. Because the new license holders all were awarded dip net permits on Monday, the upgrade for the four additional license holders from dip nets to fyke nets does not increase overall effort in the fishery, DMR officials noted. The issue of effort in the fishery is important because the federal government is considering listing American eels as endangered or threatened, which could result in a ban on elver fishing nationwide.

The four people who had their licenses upgraded from dip nets to fyke nets are Ryan Miller of Surry, Garrett Coffin of Nobleboro, Jason Brewer of South Bristol and Timothy Brewer of Nobleboro, according to the DMR statement. Attempts Thursday to contact these four people also were unsuccessful.

The Maine State Lottery conducted the license drawings on Monday, Feb. 11, in order to make the lottery fair, according to DMR officials. Monday’s lottery was the first time DMR had issued new elver licenses since 2006.

The 2013 elver season is expected to begin at noon March 22 and run until noon May 31, the release indicated.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....