ELLSWORTH — Maine’s elver fishing season opened at just after midnight on Tuesday morning chilled by the first spring snowfall and the prospect of a weak market.
Many of Maine’s ponds and rivers are ice-free after an exceptionally mild winter and some harvesters had reported seeing elvers — more properly glass eels — moving into fresh water after their long ocean journey from the Sargasso Sea, where the juvenile eels hatched. Until Monday, harvesters had been anticipating an early start to the fishing season.
“There’s been a few eels in the brooks,” Franklin elver harvester Darrell Young said Monday afternoon as he scouted the shore of Hog Bay for a spot to set his fyke net once the season opened at midnight. “Some brooks are as warm or warmer than the ocean. The snow will cool things off. Things will slow down until it warms up.”
Young is one of the founders of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association and one of the leaders in the state’s battles with federal regulators to control the fishery.
While the water will almost certainly grow warmer, longtime elver buyer Bill Sheldon said that the situation in the principal markets for Maine elvers is likely to cast a chill over the price fishermen are paid for their catch.
“The Chinese and Asian economies in general are terrible,” Sheldon said Tuesday morning as he prepared to welcome the harvesters he expected to bring him their first elver landings late that night. “It’s going to reflect on the market for sure, and on the price we’re going to get for our eels.”
Maine elvers, just a tiny segment of the world market, are shipped primarily to farms in China and Taiwan, where they grow for about a year before they are processed into kabayki. Popular throughout much of Asia, the eels are gutted, boned and butterflied, then cut into square fillets that are skewered, dipped in seasoned soy sauce and broiled.
According to Sheldon, the poor economy has cut demand for kabayaki and, consequently, for elvers. Farmers who bought elvers last year are having trouble selling the mature eels they’ve raised.
“Everyone’s cutting back and it’s showing up right now,” he said.
That could be bad news for Maine elver harvesters.
Although there is likely to be a reasonably good price for the first landings of the season, Sheldon said, he anticipates that there won’t be much upward movement, even if the harvest is small.
“Scarcity here doesn’t affect the world market for eels,” Sheldon said. “The size of our run doesn’t influence our price at all.”
The size of the run is always an issue, although no matter how large it is, Maine harvesters are fishing under a 9,688-pound quota set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
A recent bill passed by the Legislature may improve the harvesters’ chances of landing all the quota they are entitled to. The bill extends the fishing season by one week, to June 7, and eliminates the requirement of a 48-hour weekend closure of the fishery.
“Last year, Maine left over 4,400 pounds of quota in the water,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a recent statement. “That represents more than $9,600,000 in potential income that Maine harvesters could not access.”
Last year’s landings shortfall was largely attributable to a cold, dry spring that delayed the start of the season by three weeks.
“This year, the management improvements we have put in place will allow us to provide more flexibility and better opportunity for Maine elver harvesters,” Keliher said. That is primarily the result of using fixed, individual quotas a system of magnetic swipe cards that allows DMR to monitor elver landings “in near real-time.”
The new law also gave harvesters the right to choose what type of gear they would use when they applied for their 2016 licenses, although they couldn’t elect to use more.
“While the law will not allow harvesters to choose more gear than they are currently authorized to use, we want to provide people with the flexibility to fish the gear type they prefer,” Keliher said.
The new law also addresses the thorny issue of tribal elver harvesting licenses.
DMR is authorizes to enter agreements with each of Maine’s four tribes if it requests a waiver of the requirement to allocate individual fishing quotas. The agreements would allow tribal members to fish under an overall tribal quota, rather than the individual quotas assigned non-tribal fishermen.
“This compromise acknowledges the unique interests of the tribes while maintaining the important measures that have allowed Maine to protect and preserve this valuable fishery for all license holders,” Keliher said.
It still doesn’t address all of the concerns about the tribal elver fishery.
“Pat said he had issued more than 700 licenses to the Passamaquoddy,” Young said Monday, “but they won’t have swipe cards until Wednesday.”