Elvers, Part I: Midnight on the Union River

Four fyke nets along shore of Union River in Ellsworth
Four fyke nets along the shore of Union River in Ellsworth.

by Catherine Schmitt

Last night Beth Bisson and I went down to Ellsworth to catch up with elver dealer Bill Sheldon. Beth needed some glass eels for a research/education project she’s been working on with the Mitchell Center, SERC Institute, and Acadia National Park called Acadia Learning. Me? Well, I’d been wanting to write an elver story ever since I heard about Bill. I’m still working on that story, but I thought I’d share some notes here in Salarius, given that it is elver season and with the price at a record $1,000 a pound this year, the streams are full of fyke nets and people might be wondering what the heck is going on.

So an elver is a baby American eel, Latin name Anguilla rostrata. They hatch somewhere in the Sargasso Sea near the Bermuda Triangle, and drift north on ocean currents. As they drift, the larvae grow and by the time they reach the coast of Maine, they look like eels except they’re only about two or three inches long and clear as glass, hence the name glass eels. A dark, silvery line runs the length of their transparent body, and two black eye spots glisten like drops of wet ink.

An elver fisherman sells his catch to a dealer as Beth Bisson looks onThe elvers are caught, bought, sold, and shipped to China and other Asian countries, where they are stocked in aquaculture ponds and grown to adult size, at which point they are sold to markets and restaurants in Asia and beyond. A Maine elver might even make its way across the ocean and back and land on a plate of sushi as unagi.

The elver fishery is a relatively new fishery in Maine, having developed in the early 1970s and since then has been through several booms and busts. But last night, with the lanterns twinkling in the mist and the shadows of men sweeping nets through the incoming tide and everyone waiting, watching the river, it almost felt eternal.