ELLSWORTH — With the price of juvenile eels hitting unprecedented levels, the Passamaquoddy tribe in eastern Maine has issued 236 elver fishing licenses to its tribal members.

The Department of Marine Resources issues 407 licenses each year allowing fishermen to catch baby American eels, known as elvers, as they make their way up Maine rivers each spring. The tribe’s decision to issue the licenses last week caught the department by surprise, said Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

With a worldwide shortage of the tiny alien-looking creatures, prices this year have topped out at more than $2,000 a pound. Most of Maine’s catch is shipped to China and elsewhere in Asia, where the elvers are grown to market size in farm ponds and then sold to retailers and restaurants.

The move could draw more scrutiny to the fishery, Keliher said.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is now reviewing whether to list the eels as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Just last week, federal regulators issued a new stock assessment concluding the eel population is technically depleted in U.S. waters.

“This fishery is under the spotlight right now,” Keliher told the Bangor Daily News. “We don’t want to do anything to force the listing of the species.”

By law, the tribe has the authority to issue licenses, but license-holders must follow state laws and regulations. The season is scheduled to end May 31.

The newspaper’s attempts to get in touch with tribal officials on Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.

George Forni, an elver fishermen in Sullivan, said it seems unfair that tribal members can jump into the fishery when the prices are high while others like him have stuck with it for years, even when prices fell to below $50 a pound about a decade ago, to maintain their licenses.

Many elver fishermen are concerned that federal regulators could interpret the added pressure as a threat to the eel population.

“Is there going to be a fishery next year because of this?” Forni said. “To me, this is going to be flooding the market and it’s going to give the feds more ammunition to shut us down.”