In this May 15, 2021, file photo, baby eels, also known as elvers, swim in a tank after being caught in the Penobscot River in Brewer. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s annual baby eel fishing season has ended with a statewide catch worth an estimated $16.5 million, representing an $11.5 million increase over the value of the state’s 2020 harvest.

Worldwide demand for eels was abnormally low in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic depressed global trade and demand for eels at restaurants. The vast majority of baby eels caught in Maine are shipped live to eastern Asia, where they are raised in aquaculture ponds to adult size and then harvested for the global seafood market.

Maine is limited to an annual harvest of roughly 9,600 pounds of baby American eels, also known as elvers, to help protect the species from overfishing. The state’s annual elver fishing season runs each year from late March through early June. Maine is the only state with a sizable elver fishery.

Last year, Maine’s 1,000 or so licensed elver fishermen reached the statewide catch limit but earned on average only $525 per pound, which is the lowest average price they have received since demand for Maine eels soared following the 2010 fishing season, when fishermen were paid an average price of $185 per pound.

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This season, Maine fishermen harvested just shy of 9,000 pounds statewide and earned an average price of $1,849 per pound, an increase of $1,324 per pound over last year.

From 2011, when a ban on exporting eels from Europe went into effect and a tsunami wiped out some of the supply from seaside eel farms in Japan, until last year, the average annual price paid to Maine fishermen ranged between $874 per pound to $2,366 per pound.

Maine’s most valuable elver season was in 2012, before the statewide catch limit of 9,600 pounds was imposed, when fishermen cumulatively caught 21,600 pounds with an overall statewide value of $40.3 million.

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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....