Tim LaRochelle sat in the bow of a 16-foot canoe, scanning the murky river water by the light of a headlamp and a nearly full moon.
“There’s one,” LaRochelle said, pointing at a squiggle created near the water’s surface by a tiny, translucent immature eel — an elver. LaRochelle kept looking, but nearly a minute passed before he pointed to another squiggle.
His wait summed up the lackluster opening days of what could be Maine’s most scrutinized commercial fishing season in years.
Elver fishermen and dealers reported minuscule catches in the first week and a half of the season. The price for elvers is also dramatically lower, with dealers paying $400 to $650 per pound, down from $1,800 to $2,000 last year.
Veterans of the industry aren’t surprised by the small catch or the low price — even as they hope that both will rebound.
At the end of a long and unusually frigid winter, the water flowing from Maine’s rivers and streams is still too cold to lure the baby eels away from the warmer saltwater into the freshwater where they will live until they mature. And this week, with rivers and streams at flood stage throughout the state, many elver fishermen have pulled their gear from the water.
Meanwhile, large eel harvests in Europe and new or expanded fisheries in other countries — largely a response to astronomic prices for elvers in recent years — are driving down prices in Maine.
“There are other eels on the market,” said Bill Quinby of Rostrata Aquaculture, a South Carolina-based buyer and exporter whose company’s name comes from the American eel’s scientific name, Anguilla rostrata.
Maine and South Carolina are the only states with commercial elver fishing.
Mitch Feigenbaum, one of Maine’s biggest buyers and exporters of elvers, estimated that his company bought 20 times as many after the first day of fishing in 2012 as it has since this season opened April 6.
Feigenbaum’s business, Delaware Valley Fish Co., packaged a small amount of elvers Tuesday for export but wasn’t planning to ship another batch until Saturday. On Wednesday, the company’s Portland facility had only a small amount of elvers.
“So it has been a very, very slow start,” said Feigenbaum. “But people who have been fishing longer than us say they have seen this before.”
ANNUAL VALUE OF CATCH MAY FALL
Elvers are born in the Sargasso Sea, in the middle of the North Atlantic, and can swim thousands of miles before reaching and entering freshwater as glass eels. They grow into adult eels in ponds and lakes before returning to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
Elvers have been fished commercially in Maine since the 1970s, and have been harvested by the state’s American Indian tribes for thousands of years.
Fishermen in Maine harvested more than 18,000 pounds of elvers last year. With a value of nearly $33 million, elvers were the second-most-valuable commercial fishery in the state, after lobster.
The value may not get that high this year.
With about 2,500 elvers per pound, the value of each immature eel has dropped from nearly $1 to about 25 cents, at least temporarily. A fisherman’s typical daily catch, when elvers are abundant, can range from a half-pound to two pounds.
The elvers are packed into plastic bags pumped with oxygen and then shipped to China, Korea and Japan — among other locations — where they are sold to aquaculture operations. Fattened up with a protein-rich diet, the eels are then sold for consumption largely in Asia, although the U.S. market is growing.
NEW SWIPE CARDS TRACK CATCH
Maine’s 2014 elver season opened under new regulations crafted in response to concerns about the sustainability of the fishery and the long-term health of American eel populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list the American eel as a threatened or endangered species.
For the first time, the more than 400 licensed elver fishermen in Maine were issued individual catch limits as part of a statewide quota of 11,749 pounds. The state implemented an electronic swipe card system that enables regulators to monitor the catch daily, track each sale between a fisherman and a buyer, and quickly identify any irregularities that might point to poaching.
Dealers, in turn, must show that the amount of eels brought to their permanent facilities matches the transactions recorded by the swipe cards.
“Those records are created immediately and we can look at them the next day,” said Col. Joe Fessenden, commander of the Maine Marine Patrol.
While officers will still be in the field checking licenses and ensuring that fishermen follow location restrictions, Fessenden said, the swipe cards will let the marine patrol check on any discrepancies that much quicker.
Maine’s elver fishery is the first with electronic swipe cards to track catches, and observers are watching closely to see whether the system can be replicated in larger fisheries.
Deirdre Gilbert, who oversees the system for the state Department of Marine Resources, said bugs have to be worked out of any new system, but she isn’t aware of any major problems so far.
Feigenbaum said Delaware Valley Fish Co.’s buyers have had few problems with the swipe cards, which he called “a great addition to the business.”
STARk CONTRAST FROM 2012 SEASON
With prices for Maine elvers so high in the past two years, interest in restarting fisheries has been growing in other East Coast states and Caribbean nations.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the federal fisheries management board for the eastern seaboard, rejected attempts to expand eel fishing to other states and, instead, imposed the 11,749-pound catch limit on Maine for 2014.
Meanwhile, Haiti and the Dominican Republic expanded their elver fishing. And fishermen in France reported record numbers of elvers for the 2013-14 season. According to The Guardian newspaper, fishermen in two of France’s three primary eel-fishing rivers met their quotas within several days.
In Maine, LaRochelle and other fishermen are waiting for conditions to reach the point where large numbers of eels begin their upstream migration.
LaRochelle agreed to talk about the season but, like many elver fishermen, did not want his fishing location disclosed because of the intense competition.
An elver fishermen for nearly 20 years, LaRochelle said that on opening day of the 2012 season “it didn’t matter where you were (because) there were eels everywhere.”
By the end of the first night, some buyers had shut down because they had run out of money to buy eels.
“I think they are going to run at some point,” LaRochelle said as he sat in his canoe with a fishing partner. But there are no guarantees.
“We have had years where we sat and waited and waited, thinking they were going to show up,” he said. “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:[email protected]