The 9,688-pound quota of baby eels, which are also called elvers or glass eels, is due to expire in 2024.
Elver fishermen set up a net on the Penobscot River in Brewer on May 25, 2017. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine fishermen are hoping that regulators will raise the amount of a valuable baby eel they can catch each year, though conservationists think the eel needs better safeguarding.

The state’s rivers and streams are home to the country’s only significant commercial-scale baby eel fishing industry. The eels are typically worth more than $2,000 per pound because of their value to Asian aquaculture companies, which raise them to maturity and sell them for use in Japanese cuisine.

Maine fishermen have been limited to a combined quota of less than 10,000 pounds of the tiny eels per year for nearly a decade. Regulators on Tuesday are set to consider the possibility of raising that amount.

Fishermen have been good stewards of Maine rivers, and have worked to remove dams and improve habitat, said Darrell Young, president of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association. He said raising the quota would not negatively impact Maine’s longstanding system of monitoring the catch.

“We always know we could have more. We think there’s plenty of eels,” Young said.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate regulatory panel, manages the baby eel fishing industry. The only other state with a baby eel fishery is South Carolina, and its industry is much smaller than Maine’s.

The 9,688-pound quota of baby eels, which are also called elvers or glass eels, is due to expire in 2024. The fisheries commission would need to take action for that number to be changed for 2025 and beyond.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources hopes the current quota levels are maintained, said Jeff Nichols, a spokesperson for the state agency.

The baby eels are worth so much money in part because foreign sources of the eels have declined. American eels are also a species of concern for conservationists. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers them to be endangered, though the U.S. has not listed the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The conservation group’s assessment of the eels said they face a “suite of threats that have been implicated in causing the decline” of population. Those threats include habitat loss, climate change and hydropower turbines, the assessment said.

Maine’s fishing season happens every spring, and fishermen saw an average price of about $2,031 per pound last season, state records show. That was in line with most recent years.

The eels are worth far more per pound than better known Maine seafood staples such as lobsters and scallops. Some of the eels return to the U.S. for use in Japanese restaurants in dishes such as kabayaki, which is skewered and marinated eel.

Story by Patrick Whittle.