PORTLAND, Maine — Fishermen are making money on sushi in Maine, the only state in the country with a significant baby eel fishery, and lawmakers are looking to make it possible for them to make more.
Maine's baby eels are wriggling gold, sometimes worth more than $2,000 per pound at the dock. The baby eels, called elvers, are sold to Asian aquaculture companies who raise them to maturity for use them as food, and they frequently end up in sushi and sashimi. Some end up back on plates in the U.S.
But fishermen must abide by a strict quota system that limits the state fishery to 9,688 pounds per year, and they caught only 5,242 pounds of elvers last year. Fishermen attributed the slow season to a cold spring, which state regulators said slowed the migration of elvers in the rivers and streams where they are caught.
Lawmakers are looking to change the restrictions on the elver fishery to give fishermen a better chance to catch the entire quota. A legislative committee recently approved a plan to extend the season by a week and allow weekend fishing, as opposed to the current limitation to five days per week.
Elver fishermen have spoken in favor of the changes, which they said will allow them to make the most of the brief elver season, which is scheduled to begin March 22 and end May 31.
"A lot of years, when we've had bad weather, we could have used this," said Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.
The proposed changes now go to the full legislature, which could vote on it by the end of the month. The proposal also provides flexibility in the type of gear fishermen can use to catch elvers.
It would allow American Indian tribes in the state to fish under a quota for the entire tribe as opposed to individual member quotas. The Passamaquoddy tribe has protested the individual quotas, and said it believes natural resources belong to all tribal members and not individuals.
The elvers are the most valuable fishery in the state per pound at $2,172, and all-time high, last year. They've been worth more than $850 per pound every year since 2011. The fishery boomed in value when foreign sources dried up.
Mitchell Feigenbaum, an elver dealer, said the new rules won't have much impact on the market for the eels, but it could help with supply.
"These new rules do make it easier to reach the quota," he said. "They had a right to say, listen, now that a quota has been in place, let us catch it."