GARDINER — The wriggling, glass-like creatures known as elvers might not be worth their weight in gold, but they still bring a hefty sum for those lucky enough to hold a license to land them.
As of Thursday, buyers were paying $850 a pound for healthy, tiny baby eels whose visible spinal cord divides into eyes near the head.
The price for Maine elvers has risen meteorically from the low of $24.14 a pound in 2000, according to prices listed on the website of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
But the elvers are much more than future food for Asian markets.
Picture them as translucent worms with character and a survival instinct. They can be found in the Kennebec River, but it’s not an easy place to harvest them.
They hide in daylight and swim largely at night to avoid predators. They bite much more than they can chew, spinning to tear muscle fiber of the prey.
Their regulation has spawned a lot of controversy recently as quotas are being imposed, but the elvers themselves have finally appeared for the season in the waters of central and northern Maine and the harvesters are raking or hoping to rake them in.
Elvers are caught either in dip nets or in fyke nets, which use fine mesh netting that narrows down to a cod end, which resembles two bushel baskets.
The fyke nets are usually set up on the banks of a tidal waterway or stream with the edges of the netting held in place with rocks, buoys, poles and ropes.
Earlier this week, elver fisherman John Sheldon of Woolwich set up his fyke net on the Kennebec River in Gardiner.
“There are not many good spots in the Kennebec,” said Gail Whippelhauser, marine resources scientist with the state Department of Marine Resources. “Because the river is so wide there, they can be anywhere.”
The eels are usually captured in the river near the mouth of Cobbossee Stream in Gardiner or in South Gardiner.
Smaller rivers in the southern half of the state, such as the Mousam, Presumscot, Medomak, can be more conducive to elver fishing, Whippelhauser said.
The elvers are bought for aquaculture use overseas and grown for three or four years, not eaten as they are.
Whippelhauser herself would never eat a glass eel.
“They’re too cute,” Whippelhauser said.
However, at one point she kept some of the newly pigmented young in a tank. She fed them tiny bits of steak and witnessed the rotational feeding. “It’s very interesting to watch,” she said. “When they get to something too big for them, they bite and start spinning till they break the muscle fibers.”
Elvers who escape the nets can live in Maine fresh and brackish water for 15 to 30 years. Then they migrate to the Sargasso Sea section of the North Atlantic to spawn and die.
The life cycle begins again when the leptocephalus larvae drift on the Gulf Stream back toward the freshwaters along the East Coast.
Whippelhauser said they metamorphose en route into the rounded cross-section creatures somewhere around the continental shelf.
“If you want to catch them, you want to do it at night,” said Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, based in Dresden. “Eels are all nocturnal creatures.”
He said they bury themselves in mud or sand or in the clefts of rocks during the day and venture out only at night when they can make headway through the water.
But they don’t like it too icy. “It’s like going into the ice arena wearing a T-shirt,” he said. “You don’t want to do it.”
Last year, elver fishing accounted for six percent of the total commercial Maine landings or almost $33 million. Some 18,000 pounds of elvers were landed at an average price per pound of almost $1,822 some $45 less than the price in 2012.
This year, fewer elvers will be harvested.
In an effort to manage the fishery, a quota on elver fishing was introduced this year with the 436 nontribal elver harvesters having individual fishing quotas that total 8,710 pounds and the state’s four federally recognized tribes divvying up the remaining 2,453 pounds, according to the department’s website. This year elver harvesters also are required to use a swipe card to record transactions to make sure the quota is not exceeded.
While the season started slow, it’s catching up fast, Pierce said, with the quota about half filled. He said one couple caught their 60-pound quota in a single night.
“There’s a tremendous amount of eels around,” Pierce said.
He said most of the elver harvesters like the new swipe card system because it makes record-keeping and verification so much easier.
The harvesters work to ensure the elvers stay healthy because the livelier specimens command the higher dollars, he said.
Most harvesters keep them in tanks where oxygen is pumped into the water.
“They need oxygen like we do obviously,” he said. “They’re a gilled creature.”
He said elver fishery is “great for the economy because all the money stays in Maine.”