Maine’s eel fishing season has the potential to be packed with drama.
Made-for-TV drama, apparently.
Crews from a proposed Animal Planet network show called “Eel of Fortune” have been in Portland and Yarmouth for the past week, trying to capture some of that drama on the rivers.
In just a 10-week season, some fishermen have made more than $100,000 catching young eels — known as elvers — which fetch more than $2,000 a pound for markets in Asia.
With that much money at stake, and only about 400 state licenses for elvers, you’ll find people jealously guarding their fishing spots, and some who are tempted to fish illegally.
“There’s a lot of money to be made, there’s competitiveness, and if you go far enough north, there are some real characters,” said Jeff Pierce, interim president of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association. “There are certainly good stories there. A lot of these folks struggled for a long time before prices went up and the hard work paid off.”
Animal Planet announced “Eel of Fortune” in a news release last summer, saying it would focus solely on Maine’s elver fishery. On Tuesday, officials connected with the show would say little about it — when it might air, for instance — other than to confirm that it is being filmed in Maine.
A production official in Maine referred all questions to Animal Planet’s publicity department. The publicist for the show did not return calls.
Pierce and others in his association have heard about the show from people who are involved but don’t know a lot about specific plans.
Yarmouth residents have seen the TV crew’s van parked near the Royal River off Route 88 for several nights, waiting for elver fishermen to show up.
The crews haven’t given out much information to locals. It’s not uncommon for reality TV production companies to be tight-lipped while a show is being filmed.
“I was riding by (on a bike) when I saw the cameras Sunday afternoon, so I stopped to ask about it,” said Landis Hudson of Yarmouth, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Maine Rivers. “But they didn’t really tell me anything.”
Most elver harvesters use handheld nets or set up stationary nets in coastal rivers where elvers swim upstream in the spring. Some of the drama happens when one person uses a handheld net near someone else’s untended stationary net.
The Eel of Fortune crews might not have gotten much usable footage yet. Elver harvesters say the season is off to a slow start. It’s also unclear whether the crews have arranged to film certain fishermen or are just waiting for people to show up and fish.
So far, the catch has been very small, said Tim LaRochelle of Woolwich, an elver harvester who works a spot on a river in greater Portland.
LaRochelle said the production company that’s making the show came to his spot to talk to him about being in it, but he doesn’t think he wants to be involved.
He made more than $100,000 last season and he’s loath to divulge his spot or his techniques on national television, unless he’s compensated for it.
“Based on what I made last year, they’d have to be offering a lot of money for me to want to do it,” said LaRochelle. “But I’m not saying I won’t.”
He isn’t sure how much good footage the TV crew will get. He said last year’s unseasonably warm weather produced an unusually healthy run of elvers. This year, he doesn’t expect to catch much at all until the middle of April.
He said elver fishing isn’t always as lucrative as it was last year in Maine. He has been doing it since the early 1990s, and in some years has made as little as $8,000.
Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, which regulates elver fishing, sees evidence of the drama.
The current season began on March 22. In the first week, there were at least 20 violations, mostly for fishing without a license or fishing too close to a dam with a fishway, said Lt. Jon Cornish of the department’s office in Boothbay Harbor.
The department was notified that the TV crew would be in Maine but it is not involved beyond that, said Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the department. He said he did not know how long the TV crews would be in Maine, or where they would be.
Some elver-related drama happened this week Down East. Game wardens, marine resources staffers and state troopers were checking licenses of tribal Passamaquoddy fishermen in Pembroke on Sunday when about 60 other people showed up to support the fishermen.
The confrontation prompted Gov. Paul LePage to call Passamaquoddy leaders Monday to tell them not to give out more elver licenses than state limits allow, according to tribal officials.
The rift between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe has harvesters like LaRochelle worried that the regulations on elver licenses could get even tighter. That could make elver season even more dramatic.
Which, of course, would be perfect for reality TV.
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: