Price of Maine's baby eels up to $2,500 a pound as low catch fails to meet demand in Asia

BANGOR, Maine – Prices for tiny glass eels caught in river inlets along the Maine coast soared to record levels this year because a slow season resulted in reduced catch, fishermen and dealers say.

The baby eels called elvers sold for $2,500 or more per pound at times this season due to low supply, fishermen and dealers say, beating the old record of $1,868.73 in 2012. This year’s average price, which the state has not yet calculated, seems sure to dwarf last year’s and possibly eclipse 2012, fishermen said.

Dealers sell elvers overseas as seed stock for Asian aquaculture companies that raise them to maturity and sell them as food. This year’s season, which began March 22, closed on Sunday.

State regulators say fishermen failed to reach the maximum catch of 9,688 pounds this year. State Rep. Jeffrey Pierce of Dresden, who is an adviser to the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, said fishermen had only caught about 5,000 pounds as of late May.

“Everything was super late because of the harsh winter and the lack of rain. It was a frustrating year,” Pierce said. “There are guys who have caught their quota and are very happy, but it’s extremely difficult.”

Maine elvers skyrocketed in value in the early part of the decade when foreign sources dried up. Regulators then began enforcing a quota system because of concerns about overfishing. Maine has by far the largest elver fishery in the United States, and its eels are used to make popular food items such as sushi and kabayaki.

Kent Bowley, a Portland-based elver dealer who buys from Presumpscot River, said it was difficult for Maine elver dealers to meet the needs of Asian buyers this year. He and others blamed the slow start to the season on the cold spring weather.

“The sheer amount of elvers being caught, it was way too low,” Bowley said. “It got so bad that three of us pooled our resources together and satisfied a couple of contracts over there in Asia.”

Some fishermen hoped the state would extend the fishing season into June because of the low catch.

Darrell Young, who fishes for elvers in Bangor and Brewer, said the weak year was frustrating, but abiding by the season schedule will help preserve the fishery for future years.

“The elvers are still going to be around in June, but for good conservation, we’re letting them go,” Young said. “It’s good for our future.”

South Carolina is the only other state with a commercial elver fishery. A regulatory board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted last year to allow other East Coast states to begin elver fisheries if they create an approved conservation program. A commission spokeswoman said no states have submitted such plans.