Elver Economics

Stories about the price of elvers skyrocketing in the past two years got me thinking last night about the relative value of commercial fisheries in Maine. Until the price shot of elvers up last year, I had always viewed elvers kind of as a novelty fishery: there wasn’t a huge demand for them, but if you had time you could make some money fishing elvers, if not exactly a living. I no longer hold that view.

Lobster has long been king in Maine, in terms of the economic impact the fishery has on the state. With a reported 2011 landings total of more than 100 million pounds (the highest ever) and an estimated total ex-vessel value (what fishermen are paid for the catch) of $331 million, no other fishery comes close. According to Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics, the second-most valuable fishery in the state last year was softshell clams, which had a total, statewide ex-vessel value of $15 million.

Elvers, which jumped from an average annual price in 2010 of $185 per pound  to $891 per pound in 2011, also jumped up the value list. Last year it was the fourth-most valuable fishery in Maine with overall landings value of $7.6 million. Had it stayed at its 2010 total ex-vessel value of $584,851, the value of Maine’s elver fishery would have been 20th on that list. From 2001 through 2003, elver fishermen were paid less than $30 per pound.

Despite its recent leap in value, elvers still rank second to last (out of 23 species) in terms of total volume with only 8,585 pounds of the juvenile eels harvested in Maine in 2011.

Ranked just above elvers and below softshell clams on the 2011 overall value list is herring, which fetched fishermen $14 million statewide. Herring is ranked second in terms of overall volume of landings in Maine, not far behind lobster. According to DMR, 95 million pounds of herring were caught in Maine last year. Herring is caught and used in Maine primarily as lobster bait.

When it comes to ex-vessel price per pound – a figure DMR determines each year for all of the fisheries it regulates – nothing comes close to the 2011 elver fishery (and if prices of $2,000 per pound hold up through the end of May, it will be even less of a contest). The second most valuable-by-weight type of commercially harvested marine species in Maine last year was bloodworms, which had a statewide average per-pound price of $11.11. Third was scallops at $9.98 and fourth was halibut at $6.52. The 2011 per-pound price of lobster, which was $3.19, ranked seventh.

I could go on, because there are many ways to compare Maine’s commercial fisheries to each other, but I won’t do so here. If you are interested in seeing more comparisons between Maine’s 2011 landings figures, you can check out this spreadsheet I made. I list them in four different ways (see the “sheet” tabs at the bottom).

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.