ELLSWORTH, Maine — With the end of Maine’s annual elver fishing season quickly approaching, the fishery has generated the third-highest total in yearly landings revenue in the past 23 years, according to state officials.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, May 26, elver fishermen throughout Maine had caught and sold nearly 9,270 pounds of the baby American eels for an estimated statewide gross revenue total just shy of $13.32 million, officials with Maine Department of Marine Resources indicated on the agency’s website. The annual statewide harvest limit for elvers in Maine is 9,688 pounds.

That preliminary value trails only the statewide totals from 2012 and 2013, when there was no limit on the amount of elvers that Maine fishermen could catch between late March and the end of May, when the season used to close each year. In those years, Maine’s elver fishery respectively generated $40.3 million and $32.9 million in statewide gross revenues for the 900 or so licensed elver fishermen in the state. The catch volume totals for those years were 21,600 pounds in 2012 and 18,000 pounds in 2013.

The 2016 season is expected to end either on June 7 or when the statewide quota of 9,688 pounds is reached, whichever happens first.

Because of concerns about the impact elver fishing was having on the population of American eels, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in late 2013 imposed a statewide harvest limit on elvers in Maine, which is one of only two states that permit elver fishing. The other state, South Carolina, issues only 10 elver licenses each year and so has a much smaller fishery than Maine.

According to the Department of Marine Resources, the statewide average price offered this spring by dealers to fishermen, as of Thursday evening, was $1,437 per pound, which would be the fourth-highest such average in Maine since 1994, when the state first started keeping statistics on the elver fishery.

Jonesport fisherman Billy Milliken said Wednesday that despite the high value of the fishery this year, his elver income is about the same as it was in 2015, when only 5,259 pounds were caught statewide. This spring he caught his full quota — which he described only as “under 50 pounds” — but he caught only two-thirds of it last year, when cold and wet spring weather suppressed the flow of elvers up Maine’s tidal estuaries.

Despite Maine’s relatively low catch totals in 2015, a record average price of $2,171 per pound last year still kept the overall value of the state’s annual landings high at $11.4 million. Before this spring, that was the fishery’s third-highest annual revenue total in Maine since 1994.

Milliken said the price that dealers offer fishermen is determined by the global market for eels, not by what the weather may be like in Maine, where the annual catch total amounts to “a drop in the bucket” in the worldwide supply. He speculated that large-scale buyers in eastern Asia, where most elvers are shipped and raised to adult stage in aquaculture ponds to supply the region’s enormous seafood market, have been buying more elvers this year on the global black market, which would explain why legitimate fishermen are being offered less for their catch.

“I think they’re getting illegal supply from somewhere,” Milliken said.

He cited media reports of widespread elver smuggling in Europe as evidence that support his suspicions. In 2010, concerns about a severe decline in European eel catches led fishery regulators there to impose tight restrictions on eel harvests and exports.

Milliken added that an increased availability of black market eels might be why prices offered to Maine fishermen, unlike in recent years, have not increased as the end of the season has been drawing near. If large scale buyers are buying more on the black market, he reasoned, there would be less demand for the tail end of the annual supply that can legally be harvested in Maine.

Milliken said he held onto some of his catch this spring, waiting for prices offered by dealers to increase before he sold his inventory. Instead of prices going up, however, they went down by a couple hundred dollars per pound, costing him a few thousand dollars in income he would have made if he sold his catch earlier. But, he added, trying to anticipate market demand is part of the business.

Aside from lower-than-expected prices, Milliken said, the fishing was “easy” this year and less volatile than in years past. He said the fishery has been well-managed by the state and that he expects it to have a bright future.

Interstate fishery regulators are expected to increase Maine’s statewide catch limit in 2017, he said, and are considering additional measures that would allow uncaught quota to be transferred from one year to the next.

“It would allow us to make up for a bad year,” he said of dividing quota among multi-year periods, instead of capping it at the same amount every year. “I’m pumped for the future.”

Jeff Nichols, spokesman for Department of Marine Resources, said Thursday in a prepared statement that regulatory changes made this year — such as allowing elver fishing seven days per week instead of just five days per week — helped boost the 2016 harvest over last year’s total.

“With just over a week remaining in the season, Maine elver fishermen have landed 4,000 pounds more than they did during the entire season last year, and nearly 96 percent of the total quota,” Nichols said. “This is a great improvement over last season in which harvesters landed only 54 percent of the total quota.”

Maine fishery regulators are able to keep track of elver transactions as they occur because of a mandated electronic card point-of-sale system implemented by the state in 2014. Each fisherman and dealer is required to use his or her state-issued card to record the amount of elvers bought or sold with each transaction. The information is filed instantaneously in a Department of Marine Resources database that keeps a running tally of the statewide harvest.

That electronic swipe-card system, and a prohibition on cash transactions, has helped greatly to reduce the amount of poaching in Maine that was driven by high prices and looser restrictions during the state’s 2012 and 2013 elver seasons, according to Nichols.

“To date this season there have been only seven violations related to illegal elver possession, a dramatic decline from the 219 recorded in 2013 before the swipe card system was implemented,” Nichols said.

In 2014, Maine fishermen reached their inaugural annual catch limit but, with dealers offering relatively low prices that averaged around $875 per pound, the fishery had statewide gross revenues of only $8.4 million.

Maine’s elver fishery was one of the smallest fisheries in the state, both in terms of value and volume, until 2011, when demand in eastern Asia soared and the supply of eels dwindled in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that spring. The disaster, which occurred one year after regulators clamped down on the European eel fishery, wiped out aquaculture ponds in Japan where elvers are raised to adult stage.

Before 2011, the average price paid to Maine fishermen was always less than $350 per pound and the value of the state’s annual elver landings never exceeded $4 million. Since then, the average price paid to elver fishermen has been at least $874 per pound and the lowest annual value of the fishery has been $7.6 million.

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....