Eel fishermen use dip nets while fishing by lantern light in April 2020 in Yarmouth. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Kyle Dodge has been pining for an elver fishing license for 10 years.

The young glass eels go for over $2,000 a pound these days; some Mainers make more than $200,000 a year drawing the tiny, transparent creatures from local waters.

Each season, Dodge watches her husband, Greg Blackler, and his father dive into that cash cow with their thriving elver fishing operations in Waldoboro.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources reported Friday that baby eels were worth $2,009 per pound in 2023. Press Herald file

Her hunger for elver fishing dates back much further, though. As a kid, Dodge, now 29, loved the excitement that would drum up as her parents prepared for a harvest.

“At night, it was always fun to drive by (the eeling spots) because people would be hooting and hollering and you’d beep the horn,” Dodge said. “Money was about to be made – it was eeling time.”

Eeling was passed down as a tradition in Dodge’s family, from her paternal grandfather to her father and mother. But so far, Dodge hasn’t been able to continue the tradition.


Before she was old enough to easily get a license – and before the market skyrocketed – regulators placed limitations on the number of fishermen who can legally harvest elvers.

Now, a random, highly competitive lottery gatekeeps entrance to one of the state’s most lucrative industries. And though she’s entered every lottery since 2013, Dodge hasn’t had any luck so far.

But this year, her fifth time taking the gamble, Dodge’s prospects might look brighter. Maine has made licenses 16 available – the most up for grabs since the first iteration of the license lottery in the competitive 2013 market.

Even so, the chances are slim. Fewer than 0.5% of applicants have been successful in each previous lottery.

The window to apply closes Monday, and all Dodge can do is cross her fingers. But she’s hopeful that this upcoming season she might finally start setting her net.

“I just want to put my feet in the river, know that I am able to fish – know that it’s mine to do,” she said.



Unlike lobstering or cod, Maine’s elver fishery is relatively young. The elver fishery, for wild-caught juvenile eels, first opened in the 1970s but took off in the 1990s, according to state archives.

The eels hatch in the Sargasso Sea – a swath of water in the Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas with lots of floating seaweed – and drift from the ocean to North America while they grow from larvae to elvers, with the transparent look that inspired the term “glass eels.”

As juveniles, elvers leave the open ocean and move up brackish waters to eventually settle down in saltless waterways like the Penobscot and Presumpscot rivers. As the glass eels mature to adults, they eventually migrate back to the ocean anywhere from eight to 25 years later, where they spawn eggs and then die.

Fishermen catch the elvers on that migration up rivers from March to May.

Dodge’s husband, Blackler, fishes where the saltwater meets freshwater near Muscongus Bay. There, he climbs over slippery rocks to lay a special kind of gear called fyke nets in cold waters right before the high tide sweeps elvers upstream.


Blackler returns every time the tide recedes to collect his catch. He then puts the elvers in tanks at his Waldoboro home to keep them alive before he sends them off to a dealer. Dealers mostly send the creatures to east Asian aquaculture companies, where they are raised to maturity, then used as food – in Japan, the delicacy is called unagi. These migratory, freshwater eels are considered richer and more flavorful than those that live full time in saltwater, or anago.

Demand for Maine-caught elvers has swung up and down over the years.

In the 1990s, when the Maine Department of Marine Resources first started collecting data on the market, elvers sold for a fraction of what they go for today, anywhere from an average $30 to $230 per pound each year.

The fishery was valued at $3.8 million for nearly 17,000 pounds sold in 1995. And it hit an all-time low in 2001, when elvers went for just $24 a pound and just 1,687 pounds were sold. Around that time, Dodge’s parents gave up their licenses because the payoff wasn’t worth the effort to continue fishing when they were often traveling.

In the middle of the fishery’s lows, Tim LaRochelle, a Woolwich fisherman catching elvers on the Presumpscot River, was determined to stay the course.

LaRochelle’s friends thought he was crazy for not shifting gears. But he had been elver fishing since the early ’90s and decided to keep trying. LaRochelle even sacrificed a few shrimping seasons during a time when the value of the crustaceans was much higher. Fishermen hauled in $13 million worth of shrimp in 1996, compared with the $2 million worth of elvers harvested that year, for instance.


“When those guys were making some good money, I was over messing around with these elvers. And they laughed at me for messing around with these elvers for $50 a pound,” LaRochelle said. “It’s just something that I stuck with because it fills in the void.”

But in 2011, the price of Maine elvers soared to $894 a pound following a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan that wiped out eel farms. The price of Maine elvers catapulted again to nearly $2,000 a pound in 2012. The value of the fishery has mostly stayed in that range ever since.

“The same guys aren’t laughing now. They’ve said, ‘I never would have believed you’d make that much money off a friggin’ eel in the brook, it was worth nothing when you started,'” LaRochelle said. “Everyone could have gotten a license in those early years, but nobody wanted one until the price went back up. There’s a few of them that had licenses, and they kick themselves in the butt for not renewing it.”

As the value of elvers increased, regulators and legislators started imposing limits on how much people could catch so that the population wouldn’t die out (and to prevent poaching, which was rampant in the 2010s). As a result, the maximum amount of elvers each license holder can catch – and money they can make – varies.

New license holders start with 4 pounds and in recent seasons have earned up to $8,500.

The most experienced fishermen can rake in over $200,000. Seven fishermen have quotas stretching past 100 pounds., according to Darrell Young, president of the Maine Elvers Fisherman Association.


Maine’s tribes are also allocated a certain portion of the state’s quota every year, with the authority to dole out licenses themselves.


It’s not just the potential to have something coveted that appeals to Dodge. She wants to join in on the fun of elver fishing.

“It’s exciting, the build up before the season starts,” she said.

That’s why Chris Yattaw, a former ground fisherman, wants in, too. Yattaw has a camp in Waltham, next-door to Young.

Baby Eels Fishing

Elver fishermen set up a net on the Penobscot River in Brewer in 2017. Fishermen who want to harvest one of the most valuable aquatic species in Maine are hopeful they will be among the 16 new people given a license this year. Applications for the elver license lottery are due Monday. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

“It would be something else I could do to hang out with Darrell – and if I didn’t know him, I probably wouldn’t have even entered,” Yattaw said. “Plus, I’d make a little more money.”


But the stakes are still high for Dodge and Blackler.

Blackler’s work during the short season enables him to put in more time taking care of his kids in between his other jobs fishing tuna and running a Midcoast charter. That helps the family avoid the mounting costs of day care.

The extra money would unquestionably help out the family.

And playing the long game also makes these licenses worthwhile. After 4 pounds are doled out to each new fishermen, the remaining pounds from former license holders’ quotas are then divvied up between all current license holders, meaning fishermen see small increases with every turnover. And in such a lucrative industry, the license is almost like owning equity.

A bag of baby eels is prepared for packing in Waldoboro in 2019. The eels are shipped to aquaculture farms in Asia. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

“Yeah, it’s only 4 pounds the first year. But in 12 years, that will be a little bit more. It all adds up,” Dodge said. “Eventually, hopefully it would be a pretty nice quota.”

It has frustrated Dodge that her ability to fish has hinged on a random system. With Blackler’s infrastructure and equipment, Dodge is already in a place to successfully fish.


“It’s not like some guy from Aroostook County can come down and go set an eel net … he’s going to have to ask questions … and then you gotta keep it alive,” Blackler said. “We have a routine – we’ve done it for so long, it’s just automatic.”

LaRochelle thinks there could be a more selective way to hand out the licenses, maybe through an apprenticeship or other terms for eligibility. It’s more challenging to get other commercial fishing licenses in Maine, with most of the fisheries closed off to new applicants.

Blackler agrees. And he wants to be able to own the quota in a way that he could sell it or pass it down to his kids.

But Blackler has accepted that the system isn’t changing in the foreseeable future. And he and Dodge have decided to find some optimism with every round.

Some have given up altogether. After years of trying, Blackler’s uncle is no longer applying for a license, which costs $35 for each entry or $175 for the maximum of five entries an individual can submit.

“‘Screw that lottery – I’m sick of wasting my money on that,'” Blackler’s uncle told him Wednesday night.


Blackler understands the decision.

“Some people don’t share the same enthusiasm. I get it, because the chances are realistically not very good. But hey, you have got to have hope. So why not?” Blackler said.

And Dodge sees another sliver of positivity: The application in part funds a life-cycle survey that is intended to prove the elver population is large enough to keep the Maine fishery open.

“I feel like we’re giving back to my husband’s fishery,” Dodge said.

She plans to give back even more by entering her three (soon to be four) children when they are eligible at 15 years old.

“I want to see elver fishing stay in the family – all of the Blacklers are in it,” Dodge said. “I want my husband’s family to keep on the tradition with this next generation.”

While they await Monday’s lottery deadline, Dodge is helping Blackler finish making his new fyke net while she holds out hope that she’ll need a net of her own soon, too. And if this round doesn’t pan out, she’ll be ready for the next lottery.

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