Sky-high prices for elvers lured a huge number of fishermen to coastal rivers this spring, including some willing to risk fines for a chance to be paid up to $1,200 per pound for the immature American eels.

Rusty Blake said he has never seen prices so high in the 41 years he’s been in the elver business. Blake, owner of Northeast Eel and Elver Co. in West Forks, said the season started out around $200 a pound and reached $1,200 by the end.

“People are willing to take chances when you go up from $250 a pound to $1,200 a pound,” he said. “Especially if you’ve got a decent fishing area. Sometimes you can pick up eight, 10 pounds a night.”

Blake believes the prices this year were a fluke resulting from a shortage due to a moratorium on exports from European Union nations and a poor harvest in Asia.

The Maine Marine Patrol issued about 100 summonses this season, compared with about 20 last year, said Lt. Jon Cornish. About half were for fishing without a license, and a good portion were for either fishing within 150 feet of a fishway, where the eels congregate, or during the weekend, when nets are supposed to be open for passage. Fines can run as high as $500.

Officers also issued about 50 warnings and responded to 43 complaints this elver season, which began March 22 and ended May 31.

Elvers are sent to aquaculture farms in Asia, where they grow to full size and are enjoyed as a delicacy.

American eels spawn and die in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the north Atlantic Ocean. The larvae drift with ocean currents, get picked up by the Gulf Stream and make their way up the East Coast. Before they reach the coast, the flat larvae transform into small, clear elvers that are 2 to 3 inches long.

The elvers, also known as glass eels, are attracted to fresh water and swim into rivers, where they mature into adults.

Richard Mannette of Freeport couldn’t resist elver fishing this spring, despite an expired license, which is considered surrendered because he failed to renew it for two years. A license is difficult to get because the number has been capped at 827 since 1999 and few people allow theirs to lapse when fishing is good.

Mannette was one of three people on the Portland District Court docket for elver fishing violations Tuesday. He cheerfully paid a $100 fine and described how he had explained himself in the courtroom.

“‘Your honor, at the lure of $900 a pound, I couldn’t help myself,’” he recounted. “The whole courtroom was laughing, even the guy who arrested me.”

About 60 percent of the violations took place in the marine patrol’s northern division, which runs from the St. George River, around Thomaston, to Canada.

Special details and surveillance were conducted this elver season, said Lt. Dale Sprowl. Officers also had to check spots that don’t have much elver activity because people unfamiliar with elvers would try to fish there, he said.

“You really can’t even compare it to last year because of the price. The whole season was dictated by price,” Sprowl said.

While this season was busy for the marine patrol and elver fishermen, the level of activity was far less than it was in the late 1990s. At that time, there were more than 3,700 permits issued.

“It was really crazy then,” said Sgt. Rene Cloutier. “This doesn’t compare to that year.”

The fishery was small when it began in the late 1970s, but grew in the mid-1990s, said Gail Wippelhauser, a marine resources scientist with the state Department of Marine Resources. In 1996, the Legislature passed its first set of rules, which governed gear fees, the timing of the season and where equipment could be set up. Three years later, the number of licenses was capped at 827. At the same time, the price dropped from about $300 a pound to $25 a pound.

Wippelhauser said the price hovered around that point for several years, but started to rise again around 2005.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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