PORTLAND, Maine – The industry that harvests one of the most valuable fish species in the United States is hoping for a more stable year in 2022 after two years of volatile price swings.
Fishermen in Maine harvest baby eels, called elvers. The elvers are sometimes worth more than $2,000 per pound because they are vitally important for Asian aquaculture companies.
Maine is the only U.S. state with a significant fishery for the eels. Prices have fluctuated wildly since the start of COVID-19 pandemic. They sank to $525 per pound in 2020 and rose to about $1,850 last year.
This year's season begins March 22 amid another cloud of uncertainty. The season is always dependent on weather conditions and the timing of rivers thawing, because that allows the eels to run and be fished with nets. Unrest in Europe also has the ability to disrupt the international supply chain for seafood, said Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.
“Depends on the weather,” Young said. “Depends on the war.”
The price of the elvers rebounded last year in part because of greater ease in international trading at large during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The eels themselves also cooperated. Maine's fishermen are limited to a little less than 10,000 pounds (4,535 kilos) of baby eels per year, and they have reached or approached that number for several years in a row. The fishing industry ends for the season in early June or when the quota is tapped out.
The eels get sold to Asian aquaculture companies that use them as seed stock so they can be raised to maturity and used as food. They are used in Japanese dishes, and some return to the United States for use in sushi restaurants.
The baby eels are by far the most valuable seafood species in Maine on a per-pound basis. Even in a down year such as 2020, they're worth more than 100 times the price of lobster.