River dance

A spike in price complicates Maine's turbulent glass eel fishery

By Melissa Wood

For 10 weeks in spring Maine's riverbanks become a wild place. At night, the lights of headlamps dot the shores where, around the high tide, fishermen crouch with handheld dipnets or wade through river slough to check the baskets of stationary fyke nets. The week before I arrived Down East a shot had been fired in the air during a standoff. I heard stories of nets cut, stolen catches, and everyone, I learned, is packing heat.

It's elver season in Maine. While the fishery's reputation for lawlessness begins on the river, it doesn't end there. During the state's 2013 season, which ran from March 22 to May 31, Maine Marine Patrol charged violators with 351 elver-related offenses. The state also changed the law to criminalize elver offenses, which were previously civil violations. But high prices made it worth the risk for offenders like Phillip Parker of Candia, N.H. On April 3, Marine Patrol charged him with intending to sell 41 pounds of elvers without a license. Worth $80,000, it was the largest elver bust in Maine's history.

Elvers — baby eels that are also known as glass eels — didn't just grab the attention of law enforcement. When prices skyrocketed to around $2,600 a pound in 2012, they drew international media attention, including a reality show, "Eel of Fortune," for the Animal Planet cable network. And in Maine, once elvers became the second most lucrative fishery (behind lobsters), controversy also erupted over who has the right to catch them. With elvers, it seems, everyone wants a piece of the action.

Learn more about Maine's elver fishery in an web exclusive photo essay.

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