Photo by C. Parrish
Photo by C. Parrish
"Elver fishermen were getting $2,200 a pound from dealers last week," said Sergeant Marlowe Sonksen of the Maine Marine Patrol, who covers the area between the St. George and the Penobscot rivers. In some areas, the price for the baby eels slipped down to $1,700 a pound this week, according to the Department of Marine Resources (DMR).

That's 50 cents to $1 each for a sliver-thin eel that looks like a transparent Asian rice noodle.

American eel larvae drift northward from the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda, and grow to baby eels before reaching the coast and swimming up Maine rivers and streams, where they spend the next eight to 25 years in fresh water before going back to the Sargasso Sea to breed. It is these young American Eels, known as glass eels or elvers, that are netted at the mouth of rivers and streams and sold to dealers who often travel from place to place and buy them on-site.

The high price has been driven by a combination of factors that have increased demand from Asia, particularly in China's coastal Fujian Province, where eel-growers buy live elvers from Maine dealers and grow them to about a half pound in weight before selling them in the fresh fish market, according to Pat Bryant of P.B. Enterprises, a midcoast elver dealer. The half-pounders are particularly sought after in Japan, where consumers pay high prices for roasted eel, a delicacy.

Over the past two years, Europe closed exports of elvers due to new conservation rulings, driving the price of Maine elvers to the $900 range in 2011. The tsunami in Japan disrupted the Japonica eel fishing this year off the coasts of China and Japan and that catch has bottomed out.

"This year they are paying $29,000 a kilo for the Japonica eel, so the elvers are a bargain," said Bryant.

The elver season started last Thursday, March 22, and is scheduled to run until May 31. Maine is the only state that still has a significant commercial elver industry and it is now highly regulated, with no new licenses issued this year; only those that held licenses last year, around 400 people, were able to renew, according to the DMR. But the price has lured poachers hoping to make a killing.

That has kept Marine Patrol officers up at night and working overtime, searching for illegal sets, according to Marine Patrol Lieutenant John Cornish, whose officers have issued 26 violations since last week.

"The biggest violations are unlicensed dip and fyke nets and fishing in closed areas," said Cornish. "We've seen fyke nets stolen, licensed fishermen running untagged nets, people fishing someone else's net and fishing in the fishways, which are closed."

Fyke nets are funnel-shaped nets that are set at the mouth of streams and rivers.

"Our surveillance is way up," said Cornish, whose team covers from the New Hampshire border to the St. George River. "But, to tell the truth, we could use ten more patrol officers."

The increase in illegal activity has the Legislature fast-tracking a bill that would increase the penalty for unlicensed elver fishing from a maximum $500 fine to $2,000 for a first offense. A subsequent violation would be a criminal offense with a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Other proposed changes include the loss of the elver fishing license, temporarily or permanently, for molesting gear or having untagged gear; the loss of an elver dealer's license, temporarily or permanently, for violations; additional licenses for mobile dealers and the requirement that they work for a permanent licensed dealer in Maine; and the establishment by the DMR of a new gear and license lottery system.

A significant change in the elver bill is when elver fishermen can fish. The law, if passed, will split up the closed fishing period. Currently, no one can fish for elvers from noon Friday to noon Sunday. This legislation, if it passes, would close fishing from noon Tuesday to noon Wednesday and from noon Saturday to noon Sunday.

The bill could hit the governor's desk as early as Thursday, March 29. As soon as the governor signs it, the law would go into effect, immediately changing open and closed fishing times and setting the scene for some regulatory confusion.

Whether the proposed law will act as a sufficient deterrent for poachers is yet to be determined, since elver fishermen can bring in eight to ten pounds on a good night, according to Sergeant Sonksen.

Elver fishermen dip-netting in the midcoast at 9 p.m. on Wednesday night weren't catching much, but the night was early and the tide had just started to come in.

"Every minute talking to you is money wasted," an elver fisherman said. "I'll give you three minutes."

He was bundled against the cold and planned to spend the whole night fishing. So far, he had 20 elvers in his bucket.

"We're trying to make up for ten years of bad prices that started going up last year," he said.

Two other dip-net fishermen were below us on the dock, sweeping their nets under bright lights used to attract the elvers as they swam up with the tide.

"Be careful," he warned. "Everyone is out to make money. It's a pretty heated situation."

Lt. Cornish confirmed that disputes had broken out, at least between fishermen. Some had called the DMR to report poachers. Others were more likely to take care of disputes more directly, according to the elver fisherman on the dock.

The elver fisherman shook his head when asked if the elvers were being overfished.

"I have never seen so many elvers," he said, noting that the run was earlier than expected. "There's not a shortage here."

But eel populations are notoriously hard to count because of their migrations and dispersal.

As the fishing frenzy and the immediate response to regulating it at the state level unfolds, the bigger picture of the future of the American Eel is being scrutinized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for potential listing as a threatened species nation-wide under the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS found there was sufficient evidence to launch a full-scale investigation into the status of the species, which has been hit with heavy fishing and environmental hazards.

That review is still under way, according to a spokesperson from the USFWS.

Updates on the proposed elver law will be posted on as they happen.