There's a gold rush under way on the East Coast of the U.S. for tiny baby eels known as elvers. Fishermen in Maine and South Carolina are reaping profits upward of $2,000 per pound for the fish that are considered a delicacy in Japan.
Elvers have an almost ghostly appearance in the water — their bodies are a cloudy white, skinny as a cocktail straw and no longer than your finger. They look like tiny snakes as they squiggle through the water.
But when elver fisherman Abden Simmons looks at them, he sees dollar signs.
Simmons, who lives in Lewiston, Maine, says he made more in the first week of elver fishing this year than he did for the entire season last year. After he catches them, they're shipped to countries like China, where they're grown to adulthood and then sold as a food to the Japanese.
A worldwide shortage has made the U.S. the primary source for the food. Last year, prices climbed to nearly $1,000 a pound. This year they doubled.
"I have a 5-gallon bucket, a dip net, and a Coleman lantern," he says. "It's not very sophisticated at all."
The best time to fish for elvers is when the tide comes in at night. And the warm glow of the lanterns attracts elvers to the water's surface.
"They're afraid of the moon and afraid of the sun, but they're not afraid of the Coleman lantern," Simmons says.
A few weeks into the season, rumors among elver fishermen are flying: A couple making $90,000 in one night. A buyer paying out $750,000 over the course of an evening.
Meanwhile, the elvers are migrating. They're born in the Sargasso Sea, then drift into the Gulf Stream, which carries them here. They swim upriver to growing areas, till they one day migrate back to the Sargasso to spawn.
What may have been a hot fishing spot a few days ago can quickly go cold. On a good night, Simmons will catch 2 pounds. Tonight, he weighs in at just under half a pound. "I probably made a week's pay in one night, for the average person," he says.
Elver fishermen tend to be secretive about their profits — they don't want to give away good fishing spots. Simmons' bounty tonight is better than he expected. But he'll soon follow the elvers upriver, where he hopes the profits will be even better.
Wight is a reporter for Maine Public Media.
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