A baby-eel fisherman lights a lantern next to a fyke net on the shore of the Union River in downtown Ellsworth in this 2018 file photo. Under new emergency provisions meant to fight the spread of COVID-19, Maine fishery officials will allow baby eel fishermen to sell and catch eels for each other, after the delayed season starts on Monday, March 30. Credit: Bill Trotter|BDN

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Maine’s lucrative baby eel fishing season will get underway on Monday after an eight-day delay, with new provisions designed to limit the spread of the new coronavirus among fishermen.

State officials now will allow fishermen to catch and sell eels for one another with the idea that fewer fishermen will be congregating by rivers or at dealer shops. State health officials have been urging Maine residents to keep their distance from others and not gather in large groups to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

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The Maine Department of Marine Resources had delayed the normal start of the season on March 22 due to concerns about protecting fishermen and dealers from possible exposure to the disease, which is causing a global pandemic.

Now, with emergency provisions the state adopted on March 15, licensed fishermen will be allowed to sell baby eels — also known as glass eels or elvers — that have been caught by another fisherman, according to the Department of Marine Resources. Licensed fishermen also can allow other licensed fishermen to harvest elvers on their behalf, but any fishermen selling or catching elvers for another fisherman must have that other fisherman’s fishing license and electronic swipe card — which tracks sales and the catch quota for each individual fisherman — in their possession when harvesting or selling elvers.

In addition, sales of fewer than 1 pound of elvers will be banned to minimize the number of transactions for dealers. Fishermen with less than a pound of elvers will have to pool their catches together into quantities of a pound or more to sell what they have caught.

“Our objective is to reduce the population of harvesters congregating on the shores and at dealers’ shops,” Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Thursday. “Key to achieving this objective will be to allow those who are the most vulnerable to remain at home and have another harvester catch the elvers for them.”

Health officials have said that older people and others with pre-existing health concerns are more susceptible to the disease, which has killed more than 18,000 people worldwide.

State officials also encourage elver fishermen to follow general coronavirus-related health guidelines — staying at least 6 feet away from others, traveling as little as possible, frequently washing hands or using sanitizer, and carrying their own pens for signing receipts or other paperwork — when fishing or selling their catch.

Even before the state delayed the start of the elver season, elver fishermen already were concerned that the disease would greatly reduce demand for the baby eels in Asia and thereby result in lower prices for their catch, for which fishermen last year earned more than $2,000 per pound on average. Most elvers caught in Maine are shipped live to China, where the global coronavirus outbreak started, and then are grown to market size before being shipped to Japan and other countries to supply the consumer seafood market.

Varying individual quotas for Maine fishermen along with electronic swipe cards used to monitor each fisherman’s running catch total and the overall statewide harvest were adopted in 2014 after a surge in global demand, and previously lax regulations, led to a spike in poaching of baby eels along the entire East Coast. Maine is the only state that has a significant legal baby eel fishery.

Since 2015, Maine fishermen cumulatively have been held to an annual statewide catch limit of 9,688 pounds. In each of the past two years, Maine’s 10-week elver fishing season has generated totals of more than $20 million in statewide landings revenue for roughly 1,000 licensed elver fishermen.

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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....