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Fishing for Elvers in Maine
Doug Struck, Christian Science Monitor
JUNE 7, 2017 ELLSWORTH, MAINE
The rains had slacked with the tide, and a full moon glimmered smoky through the clouds. At 1 a.m., Julie Keene tucked her red hair under a baseball cap, pulled waders over her cammies, and invaded the Union River to see if she had caught elvers.
She only needed seven more pounds to hit this season’s limit. And then she could quit the sleep-starved life, cramped in a cheap motel, cooking on a hotplate, drinking too much coffee, living in the same clothes for days.
“I could go home and get some sleep,” she said wistfully. The first of her two nets tonight was a bust, nearly empty. “My fault … shoulda checked it an hour earlier,” she muttered as she picked her way down a rocky slope toward her second net. Adam Boutin, her partner of 23 years and a fellow fisherman, loped easily over the rocks and got to the net first.
“Got some,” he drawled, with a Mainer’s economy.
Keene swished into the cold water, untied the funnel of the net and peered in with her headlamp. Inside were nearly two pounds of writhing, translucent baby eels – elvers.
Two pounds would bring her $2,665 at the dealer later that morning.
She did a little dance. “Not bad! Not bad!”
Keene is a veteran elver fisher, one of only 425 Mainers, aside from native tribes, who can legally harvest the mysterious juvenile eels. The two-inch long fish, called “glass eels” for their colorless bodies, wiggle by the millions on the nighttime tides – invisible to most – from the ocean near Bermuda up rivers and streams all along the Atlantic Coast.
What Keene and her companions catch are flown live to China where they are raised for grilled eel and sushi.
Even scientists don’t know much about this secretive fish – exactly how and where they go, and how many of them there really are.
But plenty of others have noticed the soaring price for elvers, and tried to get into the game, one way or another. Federal and state agents recently concluded a four-year investigation they called “Operation Broken Glass.” Undercover agents posed as fishermen selling illegal eels, and prosecutors charged dealers and fishermen with breaking the law in eight East Coast states.
To some, the turmoil that has washed over elver fishermen in recent years reads a lot like a morality play about the dangers of sudden riches. Elver fishing was once a quirky pastime that gave rural Mainers a few extra bucks and a break from spring clam digging. But as the worldwide demand for eels grew and supplies shrank, it has become a big-money business, with struggles over quotas, fights over fishing rights, and even fisherwomen like Keene packing pistols – just in case.
“Now there’s good money in this, and they talk about closing us down,” says Darrell Young, head of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association. “To be honest, I think there’s a bit of jealousy that a guy like me with no college education could be making $200,000 a year.”
Called ‘liquid gold’ by some fishermen for prices that can go for $1,300 a pound, elvers can only be legally caught in Maine if you have one of 425 highly sought permits. Poaching has become rampant, and federal agents launched an investigation.
Ben Garvin/The Christian Science Monitor/File
‘He’s been a father…’
Twelve people already have pleaded guilty. But in Maine, the stage lights will be on the federal trial of the patron of elver fishing, William Sheldon, 71. Many here doff their cap to Mr. Sheldon as the man who helped create the elver business in the state.
“He’s been a father to most of the fishermen around here,” says Mr. Young. “We’ve learned how to fish by Bill Sheldon. He’s given hundreds of people eel nets. We still love him.”
Still, Young acknowledges, “it didn’t help us none – biggest buyer in the state of Maine running up and down the East Coast,” doing what federal agents call poaching. “I was pretty upset with him.”
Sheldon is facing federal charges of coaching fishermen in South Carolina where to catch fish illegally, buying elvers from states where the fishing is banned, and with doctoring paperwork to export black-market eels.
“The biggest thing to look out for is if a local cop or a warden should stop you,” Sheldon told a wired undercover agent, according to a search warrant request filed in federal court in Bangor. “I could get in a jam if I knew that eels that you’re selling me are coming from another state.”
“It ain’t half as bad as what’s been written,” Sheldon told a reporter for the Monitor, while he wrapped up purchases for this spring’s season. With charges pending, he is still a licensed buyer, still driving his big Ford pickup truck with the license plate EELWGN. “I am going to go to court and have my day in court.”
From the Sargasso Sea to Maine’s rivers
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