Eel fishermen use dip nets while fishing by lantern light in Yarmouth, Maine, in this April 2020 file photo. Though warm weather could boost catch volumes this spring, covid lockdowns in China could inhibit global distribution of Maine eels. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Warm weather this spring may boost catches of lucrative baby eels in Maine, but the ongoing effects of the covid pandemic still could hamper the global availability of the popular seafood item.

An abundance of eels during Maine’s 11-week elver season, which starts Tuesday, may not be able to overcome pandemic-related difficulties in shipping the eels to eastern Asia, where most elvers caught in Maine are raised to adulthood in aquaculture ponds in China and then sold into the enormous Japanese seafood market.

“As of now, the biggest challenge facing the industry this season will be the logistics of getting eels to their ultimate destinations,” said Mitchell Feigenbaum, a major distributor of Maine eels. “A severe COVID outbreak in Hong Kong combined with strict import controls have created great uncertainty in the market as the season prepares to open.”  

China has maintained a “COVID zero” policy that in recent weeks has resulted in the country locking down areas where outbreak of the disease are detected, which potentially could inhibit the ability to ship Maine elvers to Chinese aquaculture sites. Because elvers have to be shipped live, the possibility of shipments being delayed and elvers dying en route can make things “very risky” for dealers, Feigenbaum said.

Warm weather near the start of the season, such as coastal Maine has had in recent weeks, can boost the volume of the catch, which would benefit fishermen. But Feigenbaum said significant catches in late March and early April still could be undermined by distribution problems.

“Heavy production at the start of the season combined with the logistic challenges mentioned could result in bottlenecks that will dampen the prices,” he said.

But current demand “seems robust,” he added, and circumstances could change quickly to reduce the threat of shipping delays.

The tightly regulated fishery in Maine has proven to be one of the most lucrative in the state over the past decade as the worldwide availability of eels has dwindled, in large part due to an export ban in Europe. Maine is the only state with a sizable baby eel fishery and in recent years has had to enact strict fishing controls to reduce illegal poaching.

Over the past 11 years, from 2011 through 2021, Maine baby eel fishermen have netted a total of $190 million worth of the small, clear spaghetti-like fish and on average have earned nearly $1,600 per pound for their catch. During that time, the average price has varied between $525 per pound in 2020, during the pandemic’s early days, to $2,366 per pound in 2018.

Maine has nearly 1,000 elver fishermen who are licensed by the state or federally recognized Indian tribes, and a cumulative statewide limit of 9,688 pounds on its annual elver harvest.

Elver licenses in Maine have become highly sought after because of the prices paid to fishermen, which for years prior to the European export ban wavered between $25 and $240 per pound. The state Department of Marine Resources every few years holds lotteries to award a handful of new licenses, with thousands of Mainers applying each time to have their name drawn.

Mary Havener of Ellsworth was one of 13 people, all but one of whom live in Hancock and Washington counties, who were awarded new licenses earlier this month. Havener said that as a new licensee she is limited to catching only 4 pounds over the course of each season. Many fishermen are licensed to catch much more than that.

Havener’s husband, Donald Havener, has been an elver fisherman for many years, she said, so she already knows much about the fishery and has an idea for where she will erect her funnel-shaped fyke net at the edge of a tidal waterway, the location of which she did not disclose.

“I’m very excited,” Havener said, adding that she has applied for a license a few times over the years. “We hope that good weather is going to help with the harvest.”

Despite shipping complications that could arise because of the pandemic, harvesting regulations are reverting back to normal this year after having been modified in 2020 and 2021 under Gov. Janet Mills’ declared state of emergency, said Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources.

In each of the past two years, to minimize possible exposure to COVID-19 along riverbanks and at buying stations, licensed fishermen were allowed to catch and sell elvers for each other, and sales of quantities less than a pound were prohibited. Anyone with less than a pound had to pool their resources with one or more other fishermen so that together they had at least a pound to take to a licensed dealer.

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....