Why Maine Is The Only State In The US With A ‘Significant’ Elver Fishery

May 1, 2018

If you’ve ever read a story in the news about elver fishing season, you’ve probably seen some variation of this line: “Maine’s the only state in the U.S. with a significant fishery for elvers.”

Maybe you thought that’s because elvers don’t exist in large numbers outside of Maine — that would be a reasonable assumption. But the real reason is somewhat more complicated.

Eels' Strange Journey

Let’s start at the beginning, in the Sargasso Sea. Although it sounds romantic, the Sargasso Sea is actually just an area of the North Atlantic that’s full of Sargassum, a kind of seaweed that floats in the ocean rather than existing close to land.

It’s a unique marine environment, and the Sargasso Sea provides a cozy place for many species to spawn or start out life, including baby turtles and some types of fish.

It’s also where the life cycle of the American eel both begins and ends. They’re born there, and after a few decades — eels are incredibly long-lived animals — they swim back in, spawn and die.

Outside of that, eels’ life cycle isn’t that well understood, but we know they start out there as tiny leptocephali, or larvae, which look like nothing more than a transparent willow leaf.

For the first few months of their lives, they float about with the ocean currents and are eventually carried by the Gulf Stream north along the continental shelf of the eastern U.S. Then, somehow — scientists don’t know quite how — they find their way out of the Gulf Stream and into coastal and fresh waters.

At this point, they’re about a year old and looking more eel-like, but still transparent. They’re now in the elver, or “glass eel,” stage, and as University of Maine marine biologist James McCleave puts it, they get “spit out everywhere” along the Atlantic Coast. Then they more or less stay put in estuaries, rivers and lakes near the coast for decades, getting bigger, fatter and more silvery.

Daily locations of an eel tracked during migration.
Credit Nature via Wikimedia Commons

It’s during their first year in our water bodies that American eels are fished as elvers.

Valuable Baby Eels

The typical news story we were talking about before includes another stock line, something like, “Maine fishermen harvest the valuable baby eels from rivers and streams so they can be sold as seed stock to Asian aquaculture companies.”

But why are they worth so much? Eels are a big deal in Asian cuisine, and as it has become more popular at sushi places the world over, the demand for them has exploded.

Unagi is made from eels that are a couple years old when they’re killed, and there’s a huge Asian aquaculture industry that provides those. But that industry hasn’t been able to figure out a scalable way to breed eels — which turn out mostly male when they’re bred in captivity — so they need to be caught young.

Historically, Japanese and European eels have fed that market, and Asian consumers prefer their taste. But those eels’ populations have declined drastically — it’s estimated European eel and Japanese eel populations have declined by 90 percent since the ’80s. This pushed prices up somewhat on American eel, but then in 2010, things really started to get exciting.

That’s when the European Union banned all exports of European eel. (European eels are now listed as critically endangered, and Japanese eels endangered.)

And then, in March 2011, a massive earthquake hit Japan near Tokyo, and the tsunami it caused wiped out huge stockpiles of eels being cultivated in aquaculture operations. Over that year and the next two, elver prices were way up, skyrocketing from $185 per pound in 2010 to $1,868 on average in 2012, with a spike up to $2,600 near the end of the season.

Unagi, the main dish here, has been the primary driver for Maine's elver fishery.
Credit Héctor García / Flickr/Creative Commons

They haven’t been below $800 since, and they’ve mostly been much higher. As this year’s elver season goes on, they’re at some of the highest prices they’ve ever been: an average of well over $2,000 per pound.

Why Maine?

While Maine is the only state with a commercial elver quota, it’s also legal to fish elvers in South Carolina and sell them. But a very small number of people do it, and the volume of elvers they catch is very small.

So, that’s why you read that Maine is the only state with a “significant” elver fishery.

People in the Atlantic states have always fished for eels. Adult (yellow or silver) eels are eaten or used for bait, and they’re a traditional part of the diet for tribes in the area. It was a confluence of events that led to elvers becoming a major commercial fishery.

In Maine, the story starts in the 1970s, at a time when sushi was becoming popular in the western world. At that time, according to a National Geographic article on the elver trade, a Japanese fisheries attache got in touch with the state Department of Natural Resources, wondering if Maine had enough baby eels to start a commercial fishery.

The job of answering that question fell to William Sheldon, a Maine Department of Marine Resources employee with a degree in wildlife management. He was the right guy for the job. Once Sheldon determined there were indeed elvers aplenty in Maine’s rivers, estuaries and streams, he figured out techniques for elver fishing and holding, and for shipping the little eels to Japan. (That isn’t where his story ends, by the way.)

Not much came of it immediately, but the idea had been born, and according to Pat Keliher, the commissioner of DMR, “there were several pioneering fishermen who started to catch baby eels to send to markets overseas.”

He says in the ’80s, elvers, which were fished “in darkness in the middle of the night,” were “kind of a hidden little fishery” that made a few people a fair amount of money but weren’t at the very top of fisheries officials’ list of things to worry about.

In this Thursday, March 23, 2012 file photo, Bruce Steeves uses a lantern to look for young eels known as elvers on a river in southern Maine.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press File

In the ’80s, concerns about American eel populations overall drove the DMR to get involved and begin regulating the fishery. And by the ’90s, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, which manages fisheries along the Atlantic coast, started to get involved.

In 1999, it came out with its first management plan for the American eel, basically acknowledging that there were serious concerns about eels becoming endangered, looking at why and setting up ways for states to keep track of eel populations and the effects of fishing and other dangers — like turbines at power dams.

At this point, many states had already restricted eel fishing for those same reasons, and there were only a few states that allowed elvers to be fished (this was in the ‘90s, when the price of elvers wasn’t what it would one day become.)

Maine was way ahead of other states at this point in terms of both having a vibrant commercial elver fishery and in regulating it, although poaching would continue to be a major problem for a long time. So when the time came to set quotas on eel fisheries, Maine was the only state to get one for elvers.

Why did Maine get the privilege of having an amazingly lucrative fishery, and the other states didn’t get to? Here’s the thing: They mostly didn’t want to.

Part of this is because, while elvers were always worth more per pound than adult eels, prices for them didn’t really enter the stratosphere until well after the quotas were set. The prices were also all over the place, fluctuating wildly, while fisheries for adult eels were much more consistent. It wasn’t as much money, but it could be counted on as part of a fisherman’s income, year in, year out.

In some states, eels also aren’t as plentiful because dams prevent their passage into local rivers — by killing them. In contrast, Maine’s rivers are relatively open. In the words of Darrel Young, an elver fisherman and dealer out of Ellsworth and the co-founder of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, “Maine is big. We’ve got 3,500 miles of shore frontage, there’s over 250 rivers, there’s 6,000 streams, there’s an ungodly amount of brooks we don’t even fish … there’s just a phenomenal amount of glass eels running.”

Elver fishing is also very hard work, done after dark in water that’s sometimes not that far above freezing. One elver fisherman I spoke to, Justin Jordan, said it’s not easy work — standing on a steep, slippery bank, balancing buckets, lanterns and nets and “swinging a fine mesh net through the water — it’s like a trash bag on the end of a pole.”

Moreover, even if the high prices on elvers did tempt states to want to get involved, it could be an expensive hassle.

American eel
Credit Duane Raver / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The ASMFC’s rules require states that want a quota on elvers to show that they’ve been making efforts toward “stock enhancement,” like habitat restoration projects or modifying dams so eels can pass through them. They would also have to have a monitoring program to make sure the stock enhancement is working and that the quota’s not exceeded. And they’d have to begin a life cycle survey on at least one population of the state’s eels.

All of this is expensive. DMR Commissioner Keliher says the life cycle study alone costs Maine about $100,000 a year. Given the volatility of the market, he says, “this is a requirement that a lot of states look at and say, ‘I’m not sure I want to invest the money if we’re not going to have a lot of quota, and it’s not a lot of economic value back to the state.’”

Because if there’s not much of a quota, no matter how valuable a fish by pound, it’s not going to bring in that much money. Elvers are by far the most valuable fish, by pound, in Maine. But the value of the whole fishery in 2017 was only 2.1 percent of the total landings revenue that year.

What's Next?

Both European and Asian eels are endangered, and while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reviewed the American eel twice — in 2007 and again in 2015 — it has decided both times not to list it as threatened or endangered.

In its statement in 2015, the service said while American eels still “face local mortality from harvest and hydroelectric facilities, this is not threatening the overall species.” It pointed to changes that have been made in hydroelectric dams, and to harvest quotas for both elvers and adult eels, and said the service is working with people throughout eels’ range to make sure it, and other migratory species, stay stable.

Some other organizations don’t agree, including the seafood advisory list Seafood Watch, which says the all kinds of eel — including American eel — rank “among the worst seafood choices from an environmental perspective.” Other environmental and conservation organizations say the same.

The fact is, it’s very hard to be certain about eels’ status, because they have such a long and complicated life cycle. DMR Commissioner Keliher says he’s fairly comfortable with the science, and that if the state and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission are erring on the side of caution, that’s good for the long-term health of the fishery.

Meanwhile, fishermen chafe a bit at the quotas — as they often do. Ellsworth fisherman Young says he gets that it’s regulators’ job to make sure the population’s not overfished.

“But what is the population? They don’t have any idea,” he says.

Young says fishermen can see that there are plenty of eels in the water. As some say the population is plummeting, others say it’s depleted but stable and still others say, at least in Maine, it seems just fine.

So what’s in the future? It’s possible that American eel prices will continue to rise due to rising demand for unagi. It’s also theoretically possible that the species will become more threatened and fisheries managers will decide to protect them more than they are now, which could drive up the price further or eliminate the legal fishery altogether.

We do know that the ASMFC, in 2017, found that the stock “remains depleted,” but seems relatively stable by most measures. Given this — and the success that Maine has had dealing with poaching — it has suggested in its latest addendum to the fishery management plan that the quota either remain the same or revert to its pre-2014 level of 11,749 lbs.

The addendum is in its public comment period and is expected to be adopted in August of this year. Check out ASMFC.org for a meeting schedule.

While it’s unclear what’s in the future for the American eel, elvers or the fishery, right now fishermen in Maine are in the middle of one of the best seasons they’ve had in years. The catch is good, with the DMR reporting that the quota will likely be met for the first time in a few years, and at about $2,500 a pound, they’re getting the highest price they’ve ever gotten.

This story was originally published April 30, 2018 at 6:28 a.m. ET.