PORTLAND, Maine -- Tiny translucent elvers – alien-looking baby eels the size of toothpicks, with big black eyes and spines – are mysterious creatures, floating thousands of miles from their birthplace in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean before ending up each spring in Maine's rivers and streams.
But there's no mystery about what's drawing hundreds of fishermen to riverbanks to catch the creatures during the two-month fishing season. The price of the eels has skyrocketed to unparalleled levels, with catches bringing up to $2,000 a pound.
A worldwide shortage of the prized dinner fare, imported in infancy from Maine to Asia to be raised in farm ponds, has buyers paying top dollar for the baby American eels. A pound of eels should be worth around $30,000 on the open market once grown to market size, according to one dealer.
Elver prices go up and down all the time, but nobody's seen them shoot up the way they have over the past two seasons. Last year, at $891 per pound, elvers became Maine's fourth most-valuable wild fishery, worth more than well-known traditional fisheries such as groundfish, shrimp and scallops.
With this year's astronomical prices, fishermen and dealers are on edge about poachers, fishermen's safety, the secrecy of fishing spots and unwanted publicity. On top of all that, there's a move to have the eels protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Pre-season rumors had the price starting at $2,000 a pound, said longtime fisherman Bruce Steeves of Raymond, as he prepared his nets on a southern Maine river for a night of eel fishing on the season's opening day, March 22.
"And there's a prediction it'll go up from that. At $2,500 a pound, that's almost $1 per elver," Steeves said. "This is almost like liquid gold."
Steeves, like most elver fishermen, swings his hand-held "dip net" – something like a butterfly net with fine mesh – through the water for hours, standing on the riverbank as the tide comes in to capture the eels as they swim upstream. He also works another fine-mesh net shaped like a big funnel and set in the river, catching more of the eels as they ride in with the tide.
Steeves works when the tides are coming in, meaning he's as likely to be working at 3 in the morning as 3 in the afternoon. He says fishermen typically might harvest a half pound to 2 pounds a day.
There are records of a commercial elver fishery in the U.S. dating back to at least the 1880s, but nowadays only two states allow it.
South Carolina allows fishing on just the Cooper River, and issues only 10 permits annually, seven of which are held by Mainers this year, said Allan Hazel of the state Division of Natural Resources. Hazel's getting calls this year from people in Korea, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere, seeking to get in touch with fishermen and elver dealers.
But Maine is the elver breadbasket, so to speak, with 407 license holders who fish 525 nets in streams and rivers along the state's long ragged coast, working with the tides night and day.
Steeves, 56, catches lobsters from June until October, fishes for bait fish from October through the winter, and catches elvers this time of year.
He remembers the late 1990s, when the price shot up to more $200 a pound, creating a gold rush mentality that had fishermen competing for and even duking it out over prime fishing spots. In the peak year, more than 2,300 people held licenses, fishing nearly 6,000 nets.
But the price tumbled to under $30 a pound in the early 2000s, making it hardly worth fishing for them. In 2001, the fishery was worth a piddling $40,000.
Prices yo-yoed in recent years before soaring to last year's eye-popping levels because of an elver shortage in Europe and Japan, said Mitchell Feigenbaum, owner of South Shore Trading Co., which has an elver buying station in Portland. Fishermen last year harvested about 8,500 pounds at an average of $891 a pound – for a total value of $7.6 million.
With this year's catch bringing even higher prices, some fishermen staked out key fishing spots weeks ahead of time. Asian buyers have been showing up at some rivers in the dead of night, paying cash for elvers on the spot.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement officers have seen a dramatic increase in illegal activity and have issued summonses coast-wide for illegal fishing, even before the season started. Just last week, Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed emergency legislation that levies $2,000 fines and license suspensions for illegal elver fishing or tampering with other people's gear.
Maine Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot isn't surprised people are taking risks for a shot at the lucrative eels.
"At that price, people are going to take the chance to do it illegally and sell them because it's big money," Talbot said.
After Steeves harvests the creatures, he puts them in a bucket and takes them to a buyer on the Portland waterfront who strains the writhing catch to remove debris and dead eels, squeezes out the water and weighs the catch. The eels are then dumped into a holding tank of water before they're packed into Styrofoam boxes and put on planes destined for buyers in China and elsewhere in Asia, where they will be grown to market size in farm ponds.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is now reviewing whether to list the eels as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A 2007 review found that federal protection wasn't warranted.
Steeves has never eaten eel, but he's been told they're delicious. Once grown, the eels are sold for unagi kabayaki, a grilled eel dish.
"They must really love them over there to pay what they pay for them," he said. "It's funny how they'll pay for things expensive over there and over here we laugh at this stuff."
Paul Firminger, manager for South Shore Trading's Portland operation, said the eels have mild and tender white meat, no bones to speak of and skin that peels off easily.
"It's like a cross between chicken and mackerel," he said.