A man and a woman secure a fyke net, used for catching baby eels, in the Union River in Ellsworth, Maine in this April 2018 file photo. For the second straight year, Maine’s 2019 baby eel fishing season has produced more than $20 million in statewide fishing revenue and supported an average price of more than $2,000 per pound. Credit: Bill Trotter

For two consecutive years, Maine baby eel fishermen have netted more than $20 million statewide and earned an average price of more than $2,000 per pound.

With a preliminary total value of $20.1 million, Maine’s 2019 baby eel harvest as the fourth-most lucrative ever, and as the second-most since a statewide annual catch limit was imposed in 2014. The average statewide price of $2,093 ranks as the third-highest such average that fishermen have earned for the lucrative baby eels, also known as elvers.

The 2019 elver fishing season effectively ended this past week. As of Thursday, May 23, just shy of 99.7 percent of the statewide catch limit of 9,636 pounds had been harvested, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Maine’s annual season begins each year on March 22 and runs either until the quota is reached or on June 7, depending which comes first.

Last year, when Maine had $21.7 million worth of landings and an average price of $2,366, was the first time the value of the statewide catch exceeded $20 million and elver fishermen were paid on average more than $2,000 per pound. The 2018 average price is the highest annual average ever in the fishery.

The elver fishing season last year was cut short, however, when state officials found out that some fishermen were illegally selling eels under the table to dealers for cash in an attempt to avoid having those eels count toward the statewide catch quota. Despite some arrests, there were no reports of widespread illegal activity in the fishery this year.

The state banned cash transactions in the elver fishery in 2013, after soaring global demand caused prices to skyrocket, in order to discourage fishermen from not reporting the income on their tax returns.

The highest annual landings totals for Maine elvers were in 2012 and 2013, prior to Maine adopting an annual catch limit, when the fishery generated $40.4 million and $32.9 million in gross revenue respectively for fishermen statewide. The average price paid to fishermen in each of those years was less than $1,900 per pound.

Maine is only one of two states that allow elver fishing and the other one, South Carolina, has a fishery much smaller than Maine’s. The vast majority of elvers caught in the two states are shipped live to Asia, where they are raised to adult stage in aquaculture ponds and then harvested for the global seafood market, primarily as sushi.

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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....