A half-pound or so of lively elvers, delivered fresh from Patten Bay in Surry to an Ellsworth buyer, was worth about $575 at the beginning of the week as the overseas market for the baby eels remains weak. PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

Elver landings rising slowly, but price stays low



ELLSWORTH — A little more than three weeks into the 10-week fishing season, Maine elver dealers have reported buying about 30 percent of the total annual 9,616-pound landings quota allocated to the state’s fishery.

As of 6 p.m. on Sunday, according to figures the Department of Marine Resources described as “extremely preliminary,” dealers had purchased a total of 2,828.908 pounds of elvers and reportedly paid harvesters a total of $4,057,115 — an average price of $1,434 per pound.

That price may be misleading, though. On Patriots Day morning, an elver dealer in Ellsworth was paying $1,150 per pound and advising the fishermen who sell to him to hold on to their eels for a few days in hopes the price would rise.

At this time last year, dealers in the Ellsworth area were offering harvesters $1,300 per pound, with the low price reportedly a reflection of a weak market in Asia.

For the past two seasons, Maine harvesters have landed fewer elvers than allowed under their quota: 5,259 pounds in 2015 and 9,400 pounds last year. In 2015, the average price of elvers was just under $2,172 per pound and, at times, the price has soared above $2,400 per pound.

A fisherman pours his night’s landings into a fine-mesh net before the tiny elvers—about 2,000 to the pound–are transferred to a scale and then a dealer’s cooled, aerated holding tank.
PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

This season, the dealer said, landings were “light” early on because of the cold start to the spring. Over the last few days, landings have been picked up somewhat over the past few days.

This year, the Ellsworth dealer said, some Asian companies that export the elvers landed by local harvesters have been “holding back their selling contracts” that guarantee the dealers a market price for the elvers they purchase from harvesters. Without that with security, the dealers may be forced to sell their inventory to the exporters at a lower price or risk being stuck with a stock of elvers they can’t sell.

The reluctance of the Asian buyers to contract for elvers may, the Ellsworth dealer said, mean that they are “concerned with world conditions.”

Virtually all of the elvers landed in Maine are shipped by air freight to China, where they are reared for a year or more in aquaculture facilities until reaching market size, at which time they are processed into kabayaki (a smoked product served primarily as sushi or in other Japanese cuisine.) Under the current administration in Washington, the nation’s trade policy with China is uncertain.

If the landings figures are correct, as of Monday Maine harvesters still had another 6,787.09 pounds of quota available to them before the season ends May 31.

DMR tracks landings in the elver fishery through a system of magnetic swipe cards — similar to credit cards — that it issues to licensed harvesters. The fishermen must present them to dealers when they bring in their catch. The dealers run the cards through card reader connected to DMR headquarters via the internet, so the department has a more-or-less real time picture of how the harvest is progressing.

Dealers may only buy elvers from harvesters who have swipe cards, and cards are automatically shut off when an individual harvester has landed his individually allocated share of the total quota.

Of the total landings quota of 9,616 pounds established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, just over 7,566 pounds are available to harvesters licensed by DMR. The balance, just under 2,050 pounds, is allocated among the state’s four federally recognized tribes — the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Houlton Band of Maliseet, the Penobscot Tribe and the Passamaquoddy Nation. Each tribe issues its own licenses to tribal members and may establish individual quotas for tribal fishermen. DMR maintains a list of harvesters licensed by the tribes.

As of Sunday evening, Passamaquoddy harvesters had reported landings of about 768.4 pounds, about 60 percent of the tribe’s 1,284.3-pound quota.

Penobscot harvesters reported landings of about 136.5 pounds, about 22 percent of its approximately 136.5-pound quota.

DMR did not report landings for either the Micmac or the Maliseet, who together have a total quota of just over 145 pounds. Landings from both of those tribes are confidential until at least three tribal harvesters have reported landings.