Maine's Elver Season off to Slow Start

Apr 24, 2014

Elvers caught in nets on the Medomak River in Waldoboro.
Credit Patty Wight

Maine's elver fishing season, already delayed by a few weeks, is off to a slower, less frenzied start, compared with the soaring prices and chaos of the past few years. After a colder-than-normal March, glass eels are finally beginning to make their way into the state's rivers in larger numbers, as the water warms up. But, as Jay Field reports, new state regulations have also limited how many pounds of elvers Maine fishermen can catch.

Melvin Grant pulls his pick-up to a stop, jumps out, lifts a white cooler from the truck and places it on the ground. He's wet. But it's not because of the pre-dawn drizzle. Grant fell into a nearby river while fishing for glass eels. Now, in this parking lot in Ellsworth, he's about to find out if his aggressive dip netting was worth the brief swim in 40-degree water.

Grant pours the evening's catch out of the cooler and into a net. "Usually, by now, we're full stream. But you can tell they're just getting here," he says. "I mean the water just hasn't caught up with it. The water just so cold still."

Grant follows Larry Taylor over to a table a few yards away. Taylor works for Kennebec Glass Eels, one of the state's big elver buyers. Grant looks on, as Taylor empties the squirming clear mass into a steel bowl on top of a scale.  

Larry Taylor: "Two-point-three-two, Melvin!"

Melvin Grant: "What's that?"

Larry Taylor: "Two-three-two"

Four years ago, glass eels went for $200 a pound. Then, two years later, the market exploded. At its peak, two pounds of elvers could have commanded almost $6,000.

Bill Sheldon has saved a little reminder of the crazy days, on the home screen on his laptop. In the photo, Sheldon, who owns Kennebec Glass Eels, is sitting in the cab of his truck, his arms filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. But this year, prices are lower.

"I'm buying eels at $750 a pound. Things are straightening out," he says. "The main reason the price is down is they simply caught a lot in the rest of the world, both Europe and Asia."

When Sheldon cuts a fisherman a check, a lot of the time it's on behalf of one man:  Mitch Feigenbaum, one of Maine's largest exporters of elvers, runs Delaware Valley Fish Company.

"The market factor that has contributed to this, more than anything else, is the fact that the catches of a Anguilla Japonica - that's the main species that's used for farming eels around the world - their catches this year were the highest in well over a decade," Feigenbaum says.

Which means there's been less demand for Anguilla Rostrata, the species we catch here in Maine. Feingenbaum says fishermen in the Carribean are also catching more glass eels with each passing year. "The Hatian catch this year may have been as much as three, maybe even four, tons," he says.

Maine, meantime, reduced it's overall catch limit for this season to just under 12,000 pounds to satisfy regional fisheries regulators.  

"The idea that Maine's reduced quota would make more demand and less supply was true, but it was counterbalanced, many times over, by the high Japonica catches, as well as this new spike in Carribean landings," Feingenbaum says.

Despite these tougher market dynamics, buyers, dealers and fishermen alike seem to appreciate some of the new rules governing Maine's elver fishery. "Just swipe the card and the state does everything," Melvin Grant says.

Grant and other fishermen now have individual limits on how many pounds of elvers they can catch. The state is tracking their progress through a new swipe card system.

And buyers are no longer allowed to pay fishermen in cash. After swiping Grant's card, Bill Sheldon writes him a check for $1,740. Grant then drives off for home, where he'll sleep for a few hours and then get up and do it all over again.