Baby eel lottery is a go in Maine, where elver fishing pays

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine is implementing a new lottery system for licenses to fish for baby eels, which are worth more than $1,000 per pound on the worldwide sushi market.

Baby eels, called elvers, are a major fishery in Maine, where fishermen sell them to dealers so they can be sent to Asian aquaculture companies to be raised to maturity and used as food. But industry members and lawmakers have said the fishery needs a way to bring new people into the business because many elver fishermen are nearing retirement and there is no way to get a license.

The Legislature approved a permit lottery system last month. The law will likely be in effect by late October, said Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, a Dresden Republican who serves as a consultant to the elver industry. The law states that the first lottery could be held next year on or before Feb. 15.

"At some point you have to ask: How low do you want your license numbers to go?" Pierce said. "They don't have to hold a lottery every year, but they do have the ability if they want to."

The Maine elver fishery has about 425 fishermen, and the average age is older than 50. The elver fishing season take places every spring and is limited to a strict quota of less than 10,000 pounds for the entire state.

Maine elver fishermen fell about 300 pounds short of their quota this year, preliminary state records show. The average price per pound was more than $1,300, making elvers by far the most valuable fishery on a per-pound basis.

The value of the fishery is a good reason to get younger fishermen involved and preserve its future, said Darrell Young, the co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen's Association.

"Hopefully this will attract some young kids," he said.

Money from the $35 lottery application fee will be set aside to fund a study of the eel life cycle.

Maine and South Carolina are the only U.S. states with fisheries for baby eels. Maine's fishery is much larger, and the elvers have been especially valuable in recent years because foreign sources have dried up.

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