Dustin Young wades out to check the trap on a fyke net set up to capture baby eels migrating upstream on the Penobscot River in Brewer, Maine, in this May 15, 2021 file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s 2022 baby eel fishing season is expected to come to an end this week, roughly a month earlier than normal — its quickest closure since the state adopted an annual catch limit in 2014.

In addition to this year’s rapid pace of fishing, the value of Maine’s baby eel fishery has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with fishermen cumulatively projected to catch more than $20 million of the small translucent eels, which also are known as elvers. That’s up at least $3.5 million more than last year.

Elver landings this year have come about 50 percent faster this year than they did in 2021, according to Jeff Nichols, spokesman for Maine Department Marine Resources. On April 24, 2021, licensed fishermen in Maine had caught a little more than 6,000 pounds of elvers, while as of the same date this year they had caught 9,200 pounds. The 2022 statewide catch limit is 9,334 pounds

“I don’t recall a season where the catch rate has been like this,” Nichols said Monday morning.

Historically, Maine’s annual elver season has lasted roughly 10 weeks, starting in late March and closing at the end of May or in early June. Maine used to not have a catch volume limit, but since it adopted one in 2014 the length of the season has not changed significantly — until this year.

This mild weather this past month is largely believed to be why this year’s catch rate has been unusually high. Warm springs in 2012 and 2013, when Maine had no limits on the statewide catch volume, produced unprecedented bumper harvests of 21,000 pounds and 18,000 pounds respectively, with resulting harvest values of $40 million and $33 million.

As for the price that the catch yields, that’s on the rise after two seasons of lower values.

In 2020, a drop in global demand caused by the COVID pandemic reduced the value of Maine’s annual elver harvest to $5 million. In 2021, the statewide catch value rose back to $16.5 million.

The value of Maine’s statewide elver haul topped $20 million in 2018 and 2019, when licensed fisherman on average earned $2,360 per pound — which still stands as the record average price — and then $2,100 per pound in each respective year. The average price paid to fishermen this year is $2,161, according to DMR.

As of Sunday, licensed baby eel fishermen were approximately 130 pounds away from reaching the statewide catch limit, according to the state. The revenue paid to fishermen for that catch is nearly $19.9 million, with the remaining catch expected to add more than a quarter million dollars to the 2022 revenue total.

Elvers are born at sea and then each spring migrate to shore and up rivers and streams to live their lives in freshwater, returning to sea only to spawn and then die as they reach old age. Long winters that produce heavy snowpack and lingering sub-freezing temperatures can keep water temperatures low in April, which can inhibit the annual elver migration, as it did in 2015.

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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....