PORTLAND, ME— Baby eels, called elvers, are harvested so they can be used as seed stock by Asian aquaculture companies and are worth more than $2,000 per pound, making them one of the most valuable fish species in the United States. The fishing season for elvers runs from March 22 through June 7. However, the fishery may be closed earlier if Maine’s quota, established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), has been fulfilled. The eels are raised to maturity and then used in Japanese food sold in U.S. sushi restaurants in dishes like unagi. Unagi, the Japanese word for freshwater eel, is an elongated fatty fish, rich and bold in flavor.
According to the Maine Department of Marina Resources, the worth of the elvers has once again reached $2,000 per pound when they hit the docks for sale, and fishermen are being limited to 10,000 pounds per year. While the price per pound of the elvers fluctuates, this year it was only slighter cheaper than last year but higher than the previous two years.
The weather has been kind to fishermen this year as they search for the eels, and international demand has kept the fishermen in a thriving industry. Due to the withering international foreign sources for the elvers, Maine’s eel sources have become increasingly valuable in recent years.
Other than Maine, South Carolina is the only other state in the country with a fishing industry for baby eels, and even then, that state’s inventory is much smaller.
Maine fishermen harvest the elvers in the spring using nets in rivers and streams. Some fishermen target more rural locations, while others harvest in cities like Portland and Bangor. The eels are also harvested by Native American tribes in the state.
Due to the value of the fish, the worldwide industry has faced the threat of poaching for many years. In recent years, Maine adopted new controls to avert illegal elver fishing and dealing throughout the state. In addition, federal law enforcement has also targeted illegal eel selling and fishing. But unfortunately, some efforts are bypassed, and illegal dealing still occurs.
A study published earlier this year led by a research team from the University of Exeter discovered that nearly two-fifths of the North American unagi samples that were tested contained European eels, which are banned from importing or exporting.
For the complete study, please visit https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2665927122000090. For more information on the Maine eels and elver fisheries, please visit https://www.maine.gov/dmr/fisheries/commercial/fisheries-by-species/eels-and-elvers/the-maine-eel-and-elver-fisheries.