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The Maine Eel and Elver Fishery

The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) has a catadromous life cycle, that is, it spawns in the ocean and migrates to fresh water to grow to adult size. As adult eels mature, they leave the brackish/freshwater growing areas in the fall (August to November), migrate to the Sargasso Sea and spawn during the late winter. The Sargasso Sea is a large area of the western North Atlantic located east of the Bahamas and south of Bermuda. After spawning, the adult eels die. The eggs hatch after several days and develop into a larval stage (leptocephalus) which is shaped like a willow leaf. The larvae drift in the ocean for several months and then enter the Gulf Stream current to be carried north toward the North American continent. As they approach the continental shelf, the larvae transform into miniature transparent eels called “glass eels”. As glass eels leave the open ocean to enter estuaries and ascend rivers they are known as elvers. This migration occurs in late winter, early spring, and throughout the summer months. Some elvers may remain in brackish waters while others ascend rivers far inland. Eels may stay in growing areas from 8-25 years before migrating back to sea to spawn.

There are three distinct fisheries for eels in Maine which relate to three different life stages. The glass eel/elver fishery harvests small eels returning to rivers from their ocean spawning areas. This fishery utilizes fine mesh fyke nets (a funnel shaped net) or dip nets to collect elvers as they ascend to fresh water. The yellow eel fishery occurs for eels which are growing in brackish and fresh waters. These eels are typically more than 2-3 years old, but not yet mature. Harvesting gear in this fishery includes baited eel pots and fyke nets. The silver eel fishery occurs in late summer and fall and consists of weirs across streams and rivers to collect out migrating sexually mature eels that are moving downstream to go to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.

Fisheries for yellow and silver eels have a long history in Maine, having occurred since the earliest colonial settlements. The elver fishery is relatively recent, having begun in the early 1970’s to 1978 and recommenced in the early 1990’s. The fishery was nonexistent from 1979 to the early 1990’s due to a collapse in market demand for elvers. In recent years, market demand has increased dramatically. Elvers are highly valued in the far east (Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea) where they are cultured and reared to adult size for the food fish market. Due to recent intense market demand, elvers have now become the most valuable marine resource in terms of price per pound which varies from $25 to $350. The fishing season for elvers is restricted to March 22 through May 31. Harvest methods are restricted to hand dip net and fyke nets with no more than two fyke nets allowed per license holder, depending on the license holder's history. Concerns about elver fishing relate to impacts of fyke nets on other species migrating and spawning (smelt, alewives, trout and salmon) in Maine rivers, potential over harvest of eels, and the significance of eels to the ecosystem.  Legislation passed in 2006 eliminated new entry into the fishery via the elver lottery. Currently an elver fishing license may be issued only to an individual who possessed an elver fishing license in the previous calendar year

Dr. Gail Wippelhauser and George Zink Jr. are monitoring the Maine elver fishery to collect information on the harvest and fishing effort, bycatch of other species in elver nets, and the impact of this fishery on adult eel abundance in Maine waters. In addition, DMR has funded a number of eel research projects with the University of Maine at Orono to investigate various life history aspects of the American eel.

For more information on the eel and elver fishery and monitoring, visit our Sea Run Fish Programs page, or contact Dr. Gail Wippelhauser.