They’re wriggly, they’re gross and they’re worth more than $2,000 a pound. And soon, fishermen might be able to catch thousands of pounds of them for years to come.

Baby eels, also called elvers, are likely the most valuable fish in the United States on a per-pound basis — worth orders of magnitude more money at the docks than lobsters, scallops or salmon. That’s because they’re vitally important to the worldwide supply chain for Japanese food.

The tiny fish, which weigh only a few grams, are harvested by fishermen using nets in rivers and streams. The only state in the country with a significant elver catch is Maine, where fishermen have voiced concerns in recent months about the possibility of a cut to the fishery’s strict quota system.

But an interstate regulatory board that controls the fishery has released a plan to potentially keep the elver quota at its current level of a little less than 10,000 pounds a year with no sunset date. Fishermen who have spent years touting the sustainability of the fishery are pulling for approval, said Darrell Young, a director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.

“Just let ‘er go and let us fish,” Young said. “They should do that because we’ve done everything they’ve asked, above and beyond.”

A board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is scheduled to vote on a new quota system for the eel fishery May 1. The board could also extend the current quota for three years.


The eels are sold as seed stock to Asian aquaculture companies that raise them to maturity so they can be used as food, such as kabayaki, a dish of marinated, grilled eel. Some of the fish eventually return to the U.S. where they are sold at sushi restaurants.

The eels were worth $2,009 a pound last year — more than 400 times more than lobster, Maine’s signature seafood. Maine has had an elver fishery for decades, but the state’s eels became more valuable in the early 2010s, in part, because foreign sources dried up. The European eel is listed as more critically endangered than the American eel by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, though some environmental groups have pushed for greater conservation in the U.S.

Since booming in value, elvers have become the second most valuable fish species in Maine in terms of total value. The state has instituted numerous new controls to try to thwart poaching, which has emerged as a major concern as the eels have increased in value.

The elver quota remaining at current levels reflects “strong management measures we’ve instituted here in Maine,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, earlier this month. A quota cut “could have been a loss of millions of dollars in income for Maine’s elver industry,” he said.

This year’s elver season starts next week. Catching the elvers is difficult and involves setting up large nets in Maine’s cold rivers and streams at pre-dawn hours.

But that hasn’t stopped new fishermen from trying their hand in the lucrative business. The state awards to right to apply for an elver license via a lottery, and this year more than 4,500 applicants applied for just 16 available licenses.

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