Floats on the upper edge of an anchored baby eel fishing net float in the Union River in downtown Ellsworth on Thursday, March 22 by a sign in the parking of Rooster Brother kitchen supply store that indicates that fishermen cannot access the river by crossing the store's property. Fishermen generally come and go from their nets along the edge of the river, which can number in the dozens during the height of baby eel season, by coming and going from the city's public boat launch. Maine's lucrative annual baby eel fishing season started on Thursday. Credit: Bill Trotter

Maine’s annual baby eel season technically started Thursday, but continued cold, snowy weather is expected to delay the appearance of the eels along the coast until April.

Baby eels, also known as elvers or glass eels, swim to shore each spring after being born far out in the Atlantic Ocean. They generally follow the spring thaw up the coast, and usually don’t appear in Maine in significant numbers until the snow cover has melted and run off into the sea.

Elvers represent a small-volume but lucrative fishery in Maine, where the price paid to fishermen has averaged around $1,500 per pound over the past seven years. The 1,000 or so Maine residents with elver licenses, including members of Maine’s federally recognized Indian tribes, collectively caught 9,300 pounds of baby eels worth $12 million in 2017. About 2,000 baby eels comprise a pound.

The vast majority of elvers caught in Maine are shipped live to the Far East, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds and then harvested for the region’s seafood market. South Carolina, which is the only other state that allows elver fishing, has a much smaller fishery than Maine.

Dustin Young, who with his father Darrell Young has opened an elver-buying business in Ellsworth for the 2018 season, said Thursday that they are not sure what kind of prices Asian buyers will offer this year. He said he and his father, operating as D & D Elvers, are going to hold off until early April before they start buying from fishermen, in order to let some of the snow melt off and to see how the market shapes up.

“They price doesn’t really get set until [dealers in Asia] get the eels and then go to auction” to sell to seafood buyers, Dustin Young said.

The Youngs said catches of japonica eel, the variety caught off the coast of Japan, have been down this year, though there has been a late-season uptick in the fishery, the season of which ends April 1. Prices are expected to be relatively high early in Maine’s season, before elvers show up in significant numbers, but after that is anybody’s guess, they said.

The average price elver fishermen in Maine were paid for the catch in 2017 was $1,300. Since 2011, when demand for Maine eels soared after a combination of natural and regulatory factors constricted the supply of Asian and European eels, annual price averages in Maine have varied between $874 and $2,171 per pound.

Since 2014, Maine has had to adhere to an annual statewide catch limit, which currently is 9,688 pounds. Maine officials and fishermen have lobbied the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission to raise the statewide catch limit to 11,479 pounds, but the commission is not expected to consider the proposal until after the season ends in early June. The commission set a quota of 11,479 pounds for Maine in 2014 but then lowered it to 9,688 pounds the following year.

Prior to 2014, Maine had no annual limit on the number of baby eels fishermen could harvest. The commission imposed an annual catch limit after Maine had extraordinarily large harvests of 21,000 pounds in 2012 and 18,000 pounds in 2013, when warm spring weather started producing large catches as soon as the season opened.

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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....