New England Fisheries

The Most Valuable Fishery You’ve Never Heard Of

A transparent glass eel. Image credit: Northeast Eel and Elver Company

On May 31, Maine’s elver fishing season came to a close. For the small number of Maine fishermen who can make over $100,000 in two months capturing elvers, the end of the season may come as a bit of a letdown. For the regulators and conservation officers who try to manage the fishery, however, the close probably comes none too soon.

What the heck is an elver, you might ask? Elvers are juvenile Atlantic eels, really juvenile eels. They’re so small they are transparent, which is why they’re also called “glass eels.” Atlantic eels are catadromous, which means they live most of their lives in rivers before returning to the sea to spawn and die. For years, scientists were puzzled about where the eels went to spawn once they took to the sea. They now believe that they depart rivers in North America and Europe (they’re called European eels there) in the fall and make an epic journey to the Sargasso Sea—a massive seaweed patch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—where they spawn in the winter months. Currents then carry the larval eels back to coastal rivers after about a year at the juvenile “elver” stage throughout the North Atlantic Basin.

The spring run of juvenile eels as they return to coastal rivers is particularly appealing to fishermen, who catch the eels in hand dip nets or fyke nets—small-mesh, funnel-shaped nets stretched across portions of streams. But the elver fishery has a relatively short history in New England. Although locals have targeted adult eels for centuries, the elver fishery began in the 1970s and has only been fished consistently since the 1990s.

An elver net on the Union River in Ellsworth, Maine. Image credit: smilla4, Flickr

The fishery has experienced an astounding boom. Ten years ago, elvers sold for under $30/pound, primarily in live sales to Asia where they are raised to adulthood in aquaculture operations and eaten. In 2011, prices rose to $185/pound. Elver fishing was then a family activity, but not a particularly lucrative one. Beginning last year, though, increased demand combined with new restrictions on elver exports from the European Union has caused the price of elvers to soar rapidly.  Prices now occasionally reach $3000 per pound, leading to a massive “gold rush” for the tiny eels. Last year, incredibly, elvers brought in nearly $40 million, second only to lobster among Maine’s fisheries.

The elver boom has led to frequent conflict. Last year, 5000 people entered the lottery for the four available elver licenses out of a total of 655 licenses. The licenses are divided between those issued by the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which has led to sovereignty battles. At the beginning of this year’s elver season, the Passamaquoddy Tribe issued more than its allotted number of licenses and Maine officials responded angrily. The conflict supposedly led to a one-minute call between Governor Paul LePage and the tribe in which the Governor threatened to disband the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—the group tasked with investigating and righting wrongs committed against Maine’s tribes by the government—unless the tribe complied with state law.

At those high prices, poaching has also become commonplace in Maine and has also spread to other New England states that ban elver fishing entirely. New Hampshire made 22 arrests this year for illegal elver fishing, and Massachusetts has made seven. Although the fines for poaching elvers are high, the eels are so valuable that it often makes economic sense for fishermen to risk getting caught, pay the fines, and go on fishing. Earlier this year, two men were charged with assault and resisting arrest following a confrontation with New Hampshire Fish and Game officers after they were caught fishing for elvers illegally.

The elver fishery has even been linked to gang activity. Elver sales often occur at night and involve six-figure quantities of cash. Reports earlier this year suggested that the MS-13 gang was planning on targeting elver buyers as robbery targets.

The almost absurd conflicts surrounding the elver fishery—and the promise of a huge payday that keeps locals fishing anyway—have increasingly caught the attention of the local and regional media. There’s even an Animal Planet reality show, hilariously titled Eel of Fortune, in the works.

The eels, however, have their own problems. Populations of eels are depleted, a trend that’s been linked to loss of river habitat due to dams, pollution of coastal waterways, and overfishing. Other countries have found severely depleted populations of eels and considered adding them to the endangered species list. Only Maine and South Carolina currently allow fishing for juvenile eels.

The elver fishery is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASFMC), a multi-state agency that also regulates fish like menhaden and striped bass. Recently, the Commission discussed rules that would further limit the elver catch in Maine, but eventually ASMFC chose to delay a vote on these rules to allow the state of Maine to present a compromise plan to manage the fishery. If ASFMC can be persuaded to act responsibly and a stronger sense of stewardship could develop within the legal fishing community, there may be hope for healthy, sustainable elver populations—but as long as these tiny eels keep selling for thousands of dollars a pound, the drama and conflict are sure to continue.


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