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Eel fishing has been a boon to many in Maine

Soaring prices have brought a welcome windfall to residents who net the slippery little fish. But warning signs are on the horizon

BREWER, Maine — A tiny translucent eel that sells for nearly $2,000 a pound has created a modern gold rush along Maine’s rivers and streams, generating millions of dollars for once-struggling fishermen, a surge in illegal fishing, and a debate about how long the economic boom can — or should — last.

The price of the baby American eel, also known as the glass eel or elver, has fluctuated over the past decade, dropping as low a $25 a pound at one point. But following a 2010 European moratorium on exporting eels and a depleted Japanese stock that was aggravated by the 2011 tsunami, prices took off last year to meet Asia’s voracious appetite for eel. Last spring, eels were going for $2,600 a pound.

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The high demand and short supply has made them Maine’s second most valuable catch after lobster. According to the state, eels accounted for almost $39 million in business last year.

Maine is one of only two US states — the other is South Carolina — that have legal elver fisheries. That’s largely because other states weren’t interested in eel fishing until recently.

Maine issues 655 eel-harvesting licenses, which are valid between March 22 and May 31. The slippery creatures must be mostly caught at night, when they move up rivers. The short season makes the work intense, and means a lot of lost sleep for the fishermen fortunate to snag permits. On a good night, however, they can earn tens of thousands of dollars by dipping handheld nets into the water. Stories of big-money hauls abound — a fisherman in Penobscot River allegedly earned $200,000 during a single night’s session.

Elvers, spaghetti thin and about 3 inches long, are sold to dealers who sit in trucks parked near river banks. The fish are flown live to China and other Asian countries, where they grow as long as 3 feet in massive eel farms. Adult eels are mostly sold in Japan where they are roasted; in the United States, sushi eaters might recognize them as unagi.

“It’s very poor up here and this money has done wonders for people, bailing them out and getting their lives straightened out,” said Darrell Young, a 47-year-old angler from Eastbrook who said he has earned $150,000 this spring by selling eels caught in the Penobscot River.

Julie Keene, 54, said eel sales last year helped her get off welfare and invest in her 75-acre farm in northern Maine. “I have been so poor,” she said. “Last year, we were able to buy a tractor. It was like a godsend.”

But their river-to-riches story might soon have a different ending if regulators have their way.

On Tuesday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate regulatory board, based in Virginia, is scheduled to discuss the health of the eel population, including glass eels and the larger yellow and silver varieties.

In 2012, a commission study concluded US eel stock is at “historically low levels” and considered “depleted.” The report cited an array of factors, including overfishing, disease, and predators.

The board is expected to vote on several plans to address the problem, including setting a fishing quota or — even more ominous for Maine eel fishermen — imposing an outright ban on the taking of glass eels.

Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources and chair of the federal commission’s eel board, said he supports the fishing, but believes some changes are needed to keep it viable.

“The commission isn’t doing this just to make people’s lives difficult,” said Stockwell. “It is a very important fishery that we want to sustain.”

Until last year, many Maine eel fishermen barely got by, cobbling together a living from fishing, clamming, and construction. The boost in eel income has allowed them to pay off mortgages, buy new trucks, and invest in businesses. It’s ­also funded a fair share of wild partying.

The potential for eye-popping paydays has attracted poachers from Massachusetts and around New England who catch eels out of state and bring them to Maine to cash in. Some have become skilled at dodging the 40 marine patrol officers, equipped with night vision goggles, who scout river banks. Fights between fishermen over who gets to fish where are frequent.

Last month, the Maine Marine Patrol issued a summons to a New Hampshire man charged with attempting to sell 41 pounds of elvers — worth about $80,000 — without a Maine license. The Massachusetts Environmental Police has deployed its 30 coastal officers to look for poachers, staking out unattended nets and searching riverbeds from Cape Cod to the North Shore.

“It is a serious problem,’’ said Captain John Tulik of the Massachusetts environmental police. “When you have that kind of money, a lot of people want to get into it.”

The lure of easy profits also triggered a dispute this spring between Maine officials and the Passamaquoddy Native American tribe, which invoked tribal rights to issue hundreds more licenses to its members than permitted by the state.

American eel live up to 25 years and travel hundreds of miles to and from the Sargasso Sea, a massive mat of seaweed floating east of the Bahamas in the so-called Bermuda Triangle.

Baby eel larvae are carried by currents up along the East Coast, where they mature into glass eels and head into brackish and fresh waters. Over years, they gain size and pigment, turning yellow and then silver, and growing up to 3 feet long.

Eventually, they return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

Before the staggering price increases, hardly anyone except the few hundred licensed Maine fishermen were interested in elver fishing, said Paul J. Diodati, director of Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

Now Massachusetts finds itself paying for enforcement without benefiting from the fishing. Diodati sits on the board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and believes something should be done to stem poaching.

“It’s proving to be an unmanageable situation because of the values and the lack of controls ,” he said.

In Maine, licensed eel fishermen are worried Tuesday’s regulatory meeting, taking place hundreds of miles away, could ruin their newly lucrative livelihoods.

Young is so concerned he plans to take a plane flight for the first time so he can address the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in person.

“I’m not going to read anything because I can’t read,” he said. “I’ll just speak my mind.”

Young recently founded the Maine Elver Fisherman Association in hopes of saving the trade that has helped him pay off his home mortgage and other debts.

He’s fished eels for 23 years, even when he earned only enough to cover a utility bill. He believes the population remains plentiful and that critics’ are motivated more by envy than environmental concerns.

Regulators based far from Maine don’t have the same knowledge as locals who spend days and nights on the water, he said.

“We have had the best fishing we’ve ever had in the last two years,” Young said.

Fishermen say they are willing to work with researchers to better understand the eel population, and Young’s group supports new rules and regulations to stop poaching.

Already this year, the state implemented emergency legislation to reduce illegal fishing — including mandatory fines of $2,000 and criminal charges with the possibility of jail time.

Also, Maine now requires licensed dealers to buy eels by check to reduce the possibility of buyers with stacks of cash in their trucks being targeted by thieves.

On an early morning along the Penobscot last week, scores of fishermen dipped and checked their nets, repeating the process over and over.

Harvey Curtis, a weathered fisherman from Warren who has been catching eels for 30 years, said his recent profits have allowed him to build a new house.

But like others who have enjoyed the bounty of the last couple of years, he wonders if the expiration date is nearing.

Curtis said he feels powerless to stop the implementation of regulations that would limit or halt eel fishing in Maine.

“They are going to do what they are going to do,’’ Curtis said of regulators. “They don’t care about me.”

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @jbmckim

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