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Little Eels Fetch Big Bucks
For the most part, fishing in the Northeast isn’t a hugely profitable business.
Unless, that is, you’re an Elver fisherman.
Elvers, more commonly known as glass eels, are the young of the American eel.
In New Hampshire, it’s illegal to fish these babies.
But this season, that didn’t stop some people.
New Hampshire Public Radio’s Amy Quinton reports.
Under the dark of night is when you can catch them...
..swimming silently in tidal rivers and streams near the coast..
….millions of immature American eels, called elvers, make their way upstream.
Lt. Jeff Marsten is with New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department.
"They’re two to three inches long usually, translucent they’re almost clear, and they run up the coastal rivers in the spring time getting back into the fresh waters of the state."
Marsten is with the law enforcement division.
He’s standing on the banks of the Hampton River, where he spent a lot of time this spring during Elver season..under cover of night…. waiting to arrest people fishing elvers.
“it’s usually late at night so we set up surveillances and watch coastal areas that we know have elvers running in them, and then it’s just a matter of time.”
Because the population of American eel is uncertain, Fish and Game has restricted catching any eel smaller than six inches.
The agency made several arrests this spring for elver poaching.
Elvers are clear wormlike creatures with two black eyes on either side of their heads.
But the price you can get selling them…hugely attractive.
“We always thought a high price was 250 to 300 dollars a pound, but this year they’ve gone up to over 950 dollars a pound, so it can be a pretty lucrative operation if you’re successful.”
\\“this year we ended up paying 12-hundred dollars a pound.”
That’s Randall Bushey of Bushey Enteprises in Stuben Maine.
He’s an elver fisherman and a dealer.
In Maine, it’s legal to fish elvers, as long you have a license and abide by a long list of rules about gear and nets and fishing schedules.
Dealers ship elvers to Asian countries, where they are raised in ponds until they’re big enough to eat.
“The Chinese, South Koreans, Japan they eat eel the way we eat hamburger.”
But this year’s elver aficionados can’t get them from the usual sources; it’s causing American glass eel prices to skyrocket.
“There was a major conflict with the European eel this year and Europe stopped all exports to China, in the neighborhood of six thousand ton did not go to China this year for growing.”
Just seven years ago elvers sold for just 25 dollars a pound.
In Maine, only 400 people have elver fishing licenses.
But Major Alan Talbot, with Maine’s Marine Patrol, says a lot more are actually catching the baby eels.
“Due to the increase in price people that couldn’t get a license or never had a license, they were poaching, we had more poaching going on because they didn’t have a whole lot to lose if they could catch some elvers and not be caught by law enforcement sell that product, then they were that much ahead.”
The fine for poaching is around 250 dollars.
That’s not much of a deterrent for thieves earning 12-hundred dollars a pound.
Bushey says on some days fisherman may net only two elvers, other days they’ll get several pounds.
Bushey says at this price it’s worth it.
“one guy locally here done 140 pounds in three nights wow, yeah, he made a couple of years pay in three nights..
That’s 168-thousand dollars in three nights.
At one point most states along the east coast allowed elver fishing.
Gail Whipplehauser a Maine Marine Resources scientist for Maine says many elver fisheries shut down because of concern about overfishing.
But she says the industry also became quite controversial.
“I know there were problems back in 95 and 96 in Maine when the elver fisheries first got really really hot because the price was up to 300 dollars a pound, I’ve heard stories of gun play, knife fights, landowners were not happy with people tromping around in the middle of the night.”
Elver season is now over.
It’s unclear if they’ll fetch such high prices next season.
But New Hampshire Fish and Game says if so, they’ll continue to watch for scofflaws.
For NHPR news, I’m Amy Quinton.