ELLSWORTH — Earning a living as a fisherman is tough in the best of times. Right now, times are bad and Maine fishermen have to hope they don’t get any worse.
Last year, according to the Department of Marine Resources, Maine harvesters landed 9,620 pounds of elvers — juvenile eels — and dealers paid $20,119,194 for the catch, an average price of $2,091 per pound for the fishermen.
Things are markedly different in this year of the coronavirus pandemic.
DMR reported that, as of 6 p.m. Sunday, just 42 days into an already shortened fishing season, licensed dealers had already reported buying a total of about 9,353 pounds of elvers for a total of $4,877,240, an average price of $521 per pound, a $1,570 drop from last year in the price paid to elver harvesters.
While the season still has slightly more than three weeks left, only 267 pounds of the state’s annual elver quota established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission remains unharvested. Of that total, no more than 99 pounds is available to harvesters licensed by DMR. At least 138 pounds of the unharvested quota is allocated among fishermen licensed by the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians or the government of the Penobscot Nation.
Assuming the entire quota is harvested by the time the season ends on June 7 and that the average price remains the same, this year’s elver landings would have a total value of some $4,915,820 a decline of about $15,203,374—some 75 percent.
“The way things are, we were lucky to get that,” Darrell Young, a longtime elver harvester, dealer and a founder of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said Monday.
Despite the price drop, “it was a good year,” he said. Elvers were plentiful in the streams and he was able to fill his elver quota in just three weeks.
According to Young, while the drop in price is, in large part, attributable to the coronavirus pandemic, that isn’t the whole story.
Virtually all Maine elver landings are exported to the Far East, primarily China, where the juvenile eels are raised in ponds to adult market size. The ravages of the coronavirus have reduced demand in the overseas markets and complicated the already difficult process of exporting a live product, but just as big a factor was the Chinese elver fishery last year, Young said.
In December, when the elver fishing season got underway on the Caribbean island of Haiti, the price to fishermen was $6,000 per kilogram — about $2,737 per pound. By January, the price was down to $1,500 per kilo — just under $700 per pound. The opening price in South Carolina — the only other state that has a commercial elver fishery — was around $2,500 per pound when the season opened in January. By the time the season opened in Maine, the price was as high as $900 per pound, but fell to a low of around $300 per pound.
There is a huge indigenous elver fishery in China and, Young said, last year fishermen there “had their best year in 30 years.” One Chinese buyer who got as far as Canada en route to buy elvers in Hancock County turned around and went home, he said, because the Chinese ponds were already full.
“She didn’t need to buy any elvers,” said Young.
Like elver harvesters, members of Maine’s lobster industry have experienced an extraordinary disruption of their fishery. Most lobsters are consumed in restaurants or other commercial settings — cruise ships are a significant market — and the shutdown of the economy caused by the pandemic and the disruption of trade with China have had an enormous impact on the industry.
Just a few weeks ago, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher was asking lobstermen to work with dealers and “refrain from landing product if there is no market for it,” and asking dealers not to buy product without a market “to minimize loss associated with inventory that can’t be sold.”
In March and April, fortunately a time of year when relatively few lobstermen are fishing, the boat price for lobsters dropped as low as $1 per pound and some cooperatives and dealers were only buying lobsters from fishermen who were taking their gear ashore. Many lobstermen along the coast began selling directly to consumers from the back of their pickup trucks at impromptu markets set up in parking lots.
Although the price has rebounded some, demand for lobsters remains thin.
Last week, NOAA Fisheries announced that Maine fishermen, and others working in the Maine seafood industry would receive some $20 million from the more than $300 million Congress appropriated in the “CARES Act” to assist fishermen and fishery-related businesses and aquaculture operations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding was the fifth-highest awarded among 31 recipients.
NOAA is allocating funds proportionately based on a multi-year average of the total annual revenue of each region’s commercial fishing, charter fishing, processor and aquaculture sectors.
NOAA was slated to release details of the plan including more information on eligibility and how this funding will be distributed, but it will likely involve collaboration between DMR and the regional Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
DMR “will be working to develop a plan to distribute these funds as soon as we have additional guidance from NOAA,” Keliher said last Thursday, adding “while this funding is a welcome step forward, additional funding will be necessary to more fully mitigate the losses facing our $1.5 billion seafood industry here in Maine.”
As of Monday, the department had announced no details regarding the program.
The announcement of the CARES Act money came almost simultaneously with an announcement by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association that it was launching a $500,000 fundraising drive “to save Maine’s lobster industry.”
The money will go into a legal defense fund established several years ago by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association to help the industry fight several federal court cases aimed at forcing National Marine Fisheries Service to implement stricter measures to protect endangered right whales.
Last month, a federal District Court judge ruled that NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by allowing the continuation of the lobster fishery and that “Congress enacted the ESA in 1973 to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”
According to the MLA, “Thousands of Maine’s family-owned lobstering businesses are at risk of extinction” as a consequence of the order which could ultimately “shut down” the fishery.
The MLA is the only fisheries group that has been allowed to participate in the pending lawsuit.