ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine elver fishermen netted more than $12 million in baby eels in the season that ended last week — the fourth-highest grossing year since 1994, officials said.

The season came to a close last week with 9,282 pounds of elvers caught in Maine, which is 334 pounds shy of the statewide catch limit, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Maine, where more eels are caught than any other state, has a yearly statewide limit of 9,616 pounds on elver harvests, and by law the season ends either when that quota is reached or on June 7.

Maine’s 1,000 or so licensed elver fishermen on average earned just above $1,300 per pound this year, keeping the average price above $1,000 per pound for the fifth time in the past six years. The highest average price was in 2015, when fishermen earned more than $2,100 per pound but a cold spring resulted in fishermen catching only 5,200 pounds of elvers statewide.

The $12 million annual harvest value is the fourth-highest total for the fishery since 1994, according to DMR statistics. The highest-ever statewide harvest value was $40.3 million in 2012.

Maine’s elver fishery has been one of the state’s most valuable fisheries since 2011, when changes in global supply and demand made prices in Maine nearly quintuple, from $185 per pound to nearly $900 per pound. The baby eels, about 2,000 of which comprise a pound, are shipped live to East Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds and later harvested for the region’s seafood market.

[MORE: How Maine came to play a central role in an international eel smuggling scheme]

Elvers, herring and soft clams each made up about 2 percent of the state’s $721 million total worth of 2016 commercial marine species harvests. Lobster, by far the state’s biggest commercial fishery, accounted for $533 million of Maine’s marine landings last year.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of DMR, said Monday in a prepared statement that a swipe card system that was enacted in 2014 to enable the state to closely monitor elver landings and transactions continues to bring stability to the fishery and to protect the resource. Soaring prices and catch levels earlier this decade, along with lax regulations at the time, resulted in high poaching levels and nearly resulted in interstate fishing regulators closing the lucrative fishery down.

“It has also resulted in the continued dramatic decline in violations associated with possession or fishing without a license,” Keliher said. “In 2013, the year before the system went into effect, there were 220 [violations]. This year, there were two. Clearly this system works to protect both the resource and economic opportunity for Maine.”

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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....