Strong demand for baby eels from Maine, spurred by poor winter harvests elsewhere around the globe, has driven prices in the opening days of the state’s annual fishing season to unprecedented heights.

The average price offered to fishermen for their baby eels, also known as elvers, since the season began at noon last Thursday is between $2,700 and $2,800 per pound, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources. That’s the highest average price range ever reported by the state agency and more than double the $1,302 per pound that Maine fishermen averaged over the course of the 2017 season.

Pat Bryant, an elver dealer and fisherman from Nobleboro, said Tuesday that she does not think the market will support the current price for long.

Catches of japonica eels in the western Pacific have been low this winter, which has boosted demand for Atlantic eels. But catches in Asia are having a late-winter uptick, which likely will result in a price decline in Maine, she said.

“It’s the highest I ever remember, and I can’t believe it,” Bryant said of the current price. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Bryant said that despite the high price, no one is making a lot of money because the water temperature still is cold enough in Maine’s tidal waterways that few elvers have showed up yet. Elvers swim to shore each spring from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean immediately after being born.

“I could offer $10,000 [per pound] and if there aren’t any eels, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It just makes me look like a hero.”

Darrell Young, founder and co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, said Tuesday that, even so, fishermen are pretty happy with the opening price. He said it is unlikely the prevailing price will stay that high.

“It’s going to move around bit” during the season, Young said.

Young, who with his son opened an elver-buying business in downtown Ellsworth, says he expects to wait a few more days before he starts buying from other fishermen and is not sure yet what price he will offer.

Some fishermen have caught roughly 20 or 50 of the small translucent eels, he added, but it takes about 2,000 of them to make up a pound.

“They’re just not catching any yet,” Young said.

According to DMR, only 115 pounds of elvers were harvested statewide between Thursday and Tuesday, or 1.1 percent of the annual allowable harvest of 9,688 pounds. There are approximately 1,000 licensed elver fishermen in Maine, each of whom has an individual catch quota set by the state.

Maine is the only state with a significant elver fishery. The vast majority of baby eels caught in Maine are shipped live to Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds primarily for that region’s seafood market.

Prices often change during the course of the season in Maine, which starts every year on March 22 and ends on either June 7 or when the statewide harvest quota is reached, whichever comes first.

The highest ever season-long average price on record in Maine for baby eels was $2,171 per pound in 2015. Prices had been below $1,900 per pound earlier that same spring.

In 2012, when the average price for the season was more than $1,800, prices shot up to $2,600 per pound in the final week of fishing.

If the price stays at above $2,700 per pound for the entire 11-week elver season, that would put the value of this year’s harvest at more than $26 million. That would be the third-highest annual harvest total ever in Maine and by far the highest since Maine was required to adopt statewide catch limits in 2014.

After global demand for Maine eels soared in 2011, but before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission put a limit on the amount of baby eels that could be harvested in Maine each year, elver fishermen in the state netted $40 million worth of elvers in 2012 and nearly $33 million in 2013. The highest annual harvest value since then has been the $13.4 million worth of elvers Maine fishermen harvested in 2016.

High prices for elvers have spurred in an interest in increasing the statewide catch quota back to 11,749 pounds, which was the limit the interstate fisheries commission imposed in 2014. The commission lowered Maine’s annual catch limit to 9,688 pounds the following year.

According to The Associated Press, the commission has delayed possible action on raising the quota until August, after having indicated previously that it likely would take up the matter for consideration in May. States are expected to hold hearings on the proposal from May to July.

Any change in Maine’s annual quota would be implemented for the 2019 season.

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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....