ELLSWORTH, Maine — Expectations for the volume of elvers that will be caught in Maine this spring may be low but, based on prices that dealers are offering fishermen, the value of the fishery could be headed back up to what it was a couple of years ago.
The snow and cold spring temperatures are keeping landings to a trickle so far this season, but for fishermen who are catching baby American eels, the price is back up to where it was in 2012 and 2013, when the fishery exploded to become the second-most valuable in Maine. Dealers now are offering around $1,900 per pound — four times as much as what prices were at the start of the season in 2014.
Darrel Young, head of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, said Tuesday that some bays in eastern Maine are still iced in, and those that aren’t still are pretty cold. Some fishermen have told Young that they have found a small number of dead elvers in their nets that have been killed by cold freshwater runoff in the tributaries.
“Nobody’s catching anything,” Young said. “It’s too damn cold. Too much snow and too much ice.”
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said in an email Tuesday that there has been little fishing activity so far this season, which opened on March 22.
“The season is starting very slow because of the cold weather,” Nichols said. “We have received reports of a very small amount of landings but anticipate it picking up as the weather warms.”
Young, who lives in Waltham and fishes in Hancock County, said he doesn’t think the price will go down as it warms up. Global demand for eels remains high, especially in the Far East, he said, and the cold weather is expected to keep Maine’s 2015 harvest lower than what it was in 2014, when fewer than 10,000 pounds of elvers were caught statewide.
“[Elver dealers] know we’re not going to catch our [statewide] quota” of 9,688 pounds before the season ends on May 31, Young said. “I think the price will go up [more] when there are eels around.”
Pat Bryant, an elver fisherman and dealer in Nobleboro, said that prices could go the other way when elvers begin showing up along the coast in more substantial numbers — which she predicted could happen as soon as next week. The price currently being offered by herself and other dealers, she said, doesn’t carry much water in light of the miniscule landings so far.
“I could say I’m paying $10,000 an ounce, but if there are no eels….” she said, letting the thought trail off. “There is no reason for the price to be that high.”
Over the past four years, the average price elver fishermen have earned for their catch during the annual 10-week season in Maine has been significantly boosted by increased demand from the Far East, where the elvers are raised in aquaculture ponds and then sold as adult eels into the region’s seafood market.
The years 2012 and 2013, which benefited from warmer-than-usual springs, were especially lucrative for Maine elver fishermen, who on average were paid more than $1,800 per pound for their catch. Demand eased last year, when the average price was $875 per pound (close to the average of $890 in 2011). Still, the per pound average in 2014 is more than $500 per pound higher than any pre-2011 average price.
Bryant said elvers caught early in the season tend to be thinner and less robust than those caught after temperatures have increased. Dealers tend to pay lower prices in early April as a result, she said, to mitigate their financial losses when some of their newly-purchased elvers die off before reaching their destination in Asia.
But she was skeptical of rumors that, when healthier elvers start swimming ashore, that the price will jump up to $3,000 per pound, which is higher than they were even back in the boom year of 2012.
“I don’t know what they’re smoking,” Bryant said of people making that prediction. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”