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Sushi stress: Fishermen not catching many baby eels

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The chilly rivers of Maine are causing trouble in the world of sushi.

The state’s brief, annual season for baby eels is off to a slow start because of a cold spring that has prevented the fish from running in rivers.

The baby eels, called elvers, are an important piece of the worldwide sushi supply chain. They’re sold to Asian aquaculture companies — sometimes for more than $2,000 per pound — that raise them to maturity and use them as food.

“Everything is slow,” said state Rep. Henry Bear, who represents members of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians who fish for elvers. “But we’re hopeful.”

Maine has the only significant fishery for elvers in the country, and fishermen are limited to a quota of a little less than 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilograms) per year.

The season started March 22, and state records say fishermen have only caught about 1,050 pounds (475 kilograms), so far. They have until June 7 to try to catch the entire allotment, which means they are well behind pace.

The average temperature for March in the Portland area this year was 28.8 degrees. The normal average is 33.5 degrees.

Fishermen said they are confident the season will pick up, as some warm weather is forecast for Monday and the rest of the week in southern Maine. Fishermen catch the elvers in rivers and streams with nets, and sell them to dealers. So far, they’re selling for $1,487 per pound at docks, state records say.

Elvers are a major fishery in Maine, and fishermen’s ability to reach quota fluctuates year to year. They reached quota in 2014, fell far short in 2015, and just about reached it last year. Early spring weather, which can be hard to predict in Maine, has emerged as a deciding factor in whether fishermen will reach quota.

The fishery was worth more than $13 million in 2016. It’s currently closed to new harvesters, but state legislators are considering a proposal to let new people into the business via a lottery system. A committee is expected to vote on the proposal soon.

Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said the lottery system would help maintain the number of elver harvesters in the state at 425.

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