PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine's annual rush to catch valuable baby eels prized by expensive restaurants and Asian markets will likely be more successful this year because of warmer weather, fishermen say.
Baby eels cost more at the dock than any other fishery in the state, and are among the most lucrative in the country, sometimes fetching more than $2,000 per pound. Maine has the only significant baby eel fishery in the country, and the season begins Tuesday.
But Maine's baby eel, or elver, fishermen are coming off a difficult year. Fishermen caught less than 5,300 pounds of the baby eels against a quota of nearly 10,000 in 2015. Many fishermen blamed the slow year on a cold spring, in which the rivers where elvers swim in the spring were still frozen in late March.
Prospects are much better for this year, because rivers are running and temperatures are higher, said Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, a Dresden Republican and adviser to the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.
"There's every reason to expect everyone will catch their quota," Pierce said. "Last year at this time we were still snowmobiling on the Kennebec River."
The tiny creatures — there are more than 2,000 glass eels per pound — are sold to aquaculture companies that raise them to maturity and use them for food such as in sushi and kabayaki. Some end up at high-priced restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. The fishery was worth more than $11 million last year, and topped $40 million in 2012.
The season is starting as lawmakers are changing regulations to give fishermen a better chance at catching the entire quota. A new law extends the season by a week, to June 7, and allows weekend fishing. The fishery previously had been limited to five days per week.
The law also provides flexibility in the type of gear fishermen can use to catch the elvers.
Kent Bowley, a Portland-based elver dealer, said he expects supply to be way up this year, and for prices to remain high, because the sushi industry depends on the baby eels.
"Elvers are already here," Bowley said. "Last year, it wasn't for another three weeks."