In this April 2012 file photo, a handful of elvers are displayed by a buyer in Portland. The baby eels are shipped to Asia for a healthy profit, where they will grow to adults and be sold as food.
Four Mainers hit the jackpot this week when their names were chosen in a state lottery that won't pay them any money – at least not yet.
The winners were notified Tuesday that they have been awarded licenses by the Maine Department of Marine Resources to use dip nets to fish for elvers – translucent baby eels that are roughly the size of a toothpick.
The fishermen stand to make a healthy profit when elver fishing season begins next month.
The Department of Marine Resources said the value of the elver fishery in 2012 was about $40 million, making it second in the state only to lobster.
"At certain times during the season, prices were running above $2,600 a pound," said Deirdre Gilbert, the department's director of state marine policy. "The year before, prices were about $900 a pound. The prices went through the roof in 2012."
Gilbert said there are about 2,500 elvers in a pound, so each elver is worth about a dollar. A typical daily harvest can range from a half-pound to 2 pounds.
The demand for elvers, also known as glass eels, is driven by the Asian fish market. Live elvers are shipped to Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea, where they are raised in farm ponds to adult size before they are sold to retailers and restaurants.
The last time the state issued a new elver fishing license was 2006. Gilbert said four slots became available this year because four elver fishermen decided not to renew their dip-net licenses.
When word got out about the available licenses, more than 5,200 people applied. The Department of Marine Resources turned to the Maine State Lottery to ensure that the winners were chosen fairly.
The licenses for catching elvers with dip nets were awarded to Mark Wakem of Poland, Alyssa Orestis of Searsport, Meredith Perry of Spruce Head and Garrett Lemoine of Swan's Island.
None of the winners could be contacted for comment Wednesday night.
Their season will run from March 22 to May 31.
Gilbert said a separate lottery was held Monday -- with 133 entrants -- for licenses to fish for elvers with fyke nets.
Unlike dip nets, which allow fishermen to be mobile, fyke nets are funnel-shaped nets that are stationary and typically placed across streams or rivers.
"There is the potential for a much larger catch (and income) with a fyke net," Gilbert said.
All four fyke-net lottery winners previously held dip-net licenses. They are Ryan Miller of Surry, Garrett Coffin and Timothy Brewer of Nobleboro, and Jason Brewer of Walpole. About 400 people hold licenses of both types to harvest elvers in Maine.
According to the Department of Marine Resources' website, fully grown American eels migrate from bodies of fresh water in Maine to the Sargasso Sea -- a large area east of the Bahamas and south of Bermuda -- where they spawn.
After spawning, the eels die. Their larvae drift in the ocean before being carried north to places such as Maine. The larvae transform into glass eels as they approach land.
When they enter Maine estuaries and rivers, they become known as elvers.
Maine fishermen have gone after elvers since the 1970s, but it wasn't until the 1990s that the fishery gained much attention. That is when prices rose to more than $200 a pound.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:
In this April 2012 file photo, John Moore of Freeport fishes for elvers in a Southern Maine river.