A man and a woman re-secure a fyke net in the Union River in Ellsworth, Maine in this 2018 file photo. Because of the effects of COVID-19 on the global economy, Maine’s annual baby eel fishing season has begun with the lowest prices offered to fishermen in a decade. Credit: Bill Trotter|BDN

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ELLSWORTH, Maine — A week after Maine’s annual commercial baby eel fishing season got under way, prices for the lucrative catch are the lowest they have been in the past 10 years.

According to information posted on the Maine Department of Marine Resources website, the average price paid to baby eel fishermen in Maine this past week is $512 per pound, which is roughly $360 lower than the lowest average annual price fishermen have received in the past decade.

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From 2011 through 2019, baby eels in Maine fetched an average of $1,670 per pound, varying between an average of $875 in 2014 and an average of $2,366 in 2018.

Maine is the only state that has a significant legal fishery for baby eels, which also are known as glass eels or elvers. The vast majority of elvers caught in Maine are shipped live to China, where they are grown in aquaculture ponds and then harvested as adult eels for the global seafood market.

Fishery officials have said that the prices for elvers this year could be unusually low, given the severe adverse impact the global COVID-19 pandemic has had on the economy and the demand for seafood, and in particular on the restaurant market in Asia.

The global demand for elvers caught in Maine surged in 2011, after Europe banned the export of eels and a tsunami heavily damaged the supply of live eels in Japan, which is the world’s biggest consumer market for eels. Prior to 2011, the highest average annual price Maine fishermen received for baby eels was $346.66 in 2007.

Prices tend to fluctuate over the course of Maine’s annual fishing season, which typically begins in late March and extends until early June, but sometimes rise as the season draws to a close. If the average price offered to fishermen remains close to the current price, the overall statewide value of Maine’s 2020 harvest would be around $5 million — roughly one quarter of its value in each of the past two years.

To help protect eels from being overfished, Maine’s annual statewide catch limit for elvers is 9,688 pounds. There are approximately 1,000 licensed elver fishermen in the state, with varying individual catch quotas that range from a few pounds to more than 50 pounds.

The start of Maine’s elver season this year was delayed to give state fishery officials time to work out new rules aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 by limiting close physical proximity between fishermen and between fishermen and elver buyers.

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....