Your average American might keep their eye on the Powerball or Mega Millions, but for Maine fishermen, the baby eel lottery is one of the most potentially lucrative draws of the year.
Baby eels, also known as elvers, are said to be Maine's most valuable catch per pound—fetching $2,093 last year, according to the Bangor Daily News. By comparison, lobsters net about $4 per pound. However, the state caps both the amount of elvers fishermen can harvest and the total number of licenses. Currently, just 425 state-issued licenses exist (additional licenses authority is granted to some federally-recognized Indian tribes), and, for obvious reasons, they are typically renewed. Over the past two years, just nine licenses have opened up, and now, they'll once again be doled out via a lottery.
In 2018, 3,000 people submitted over 8,000 applications for the mere 11 licenses that were available that year, National Fisherman reported (no lottery was held in 2019). For 2020, any eligible individual 15 years of age or older can submit up to five applications at $35 a pop (most of which goes to Maine's Eel and Elver Management Fund) from now until February 21 for their chance to apply to purchase an elver fishing license. (Yes, this is the kind of lottery where, if you win, you have to pay.) Then it's hopefully game on for the 2020 season which runs from March 22 to June 7. Last year's catch was valued at over $20 million in total.
Elvers, though not particularly exciting on their own, are usually sold to Asian aquaculture companies who then raise in captivity to maturity when they can be used for food at places like sushi restaurants, the Daily News explains; in fact, ironically enough, those full-grown eels often end up back in the United States for consumption.
However, the value of these elvers has skyrocketed in the past decade: Supplies in Asia and Europe dropped while Asian demand grew. Meanwhile, elvers are important to their own ecosystems, meaning environmental considerations are also at play. As a result, the increase in value has coincided with more efforts to protect elvers against poaching. And though baby eel fishing may be a great opportunity for fisherman, that value has also come with repercussions.