With the season about to end on May 31, I drove five hours north to Eastport, Maine, this week to learn more about the fishery for elvers, which have been making headlines since last year when prices reached more than $2,000 a pound.
At first I imagined life must be pretty good for elver fishermen these days. Even though their price is down from last year, elvers, or baby eels, are still fetching about $1,700 a pound.
Their price is so high because the 2011 Japanese tsunami wiped out Asian eel farms that need to be replenished with baby eels. Maine and South Carolina are also the only states that allow the harvesting of elvers, and in Maine that demand brought in almost $38 million last year compared to $7.5 million in 2011 and half a million dollars in 2010.
This was unlike any other fishery I've ever written about. First of all, you don't get on a boat. Elvers are caught at night along riverbanks in either stationary fyke nets or with hand-held dipnets. Eels are catadramous, meaning they spend most of their lives in fresh water, but go out to sea to reproduce. The baby eels born at sea then make their ways to and up the rivers and streams along the coast.
It may not be a high-seas adventure, but there's certainly excitement along the riverbank. I heard stories of guns being brandished or shot into the air (everyone's packing, I was told), nets being cut and tampered with, and bad blood between long-time fishermen and newcomers hoping to cash in on the elver gold rush.
If anyone's getting rich, it's not the fishermen Down East, at least not the ones I met. Right at the Canadian border, it's a beautiful but down-and-out area with little to offer for jobs and industry. It takes about 2,400 elvers to make a pound, and elver dealer Tim Sheehan says people usually bring in an ounce here and there. "In order for me to get 30 pounds, I have to buy from 150 fishermen," he said. Sheehan guesses the fishermen making the big bucks have their own connections and aren't making a lot of noise about it.
But even dribs and drabs can equal a couple hundred dollars a day. Doesn't that make a difference? As David Nicholas picked out the glass eels among a bycatch of sand fleas and slippery adult eels in his fyke net, I asked whether he's planning to take a vacation or buy a new car.
"First thing I do is fill up the oil barrel. There's no work, you gotta save for tomorrow," he said (that's us talking in the photo above). I talked to him around 5 a.m. Later in the day he was planning to go "winkling," picking tiny periwinkles for about a $1 a pound.
There's more to this story, and I'll be sharing it in a future issue of National Fisherman. As always, thanks for reading!