Dim shapes move back and forth along the banks of the river, distorted by the wavering light of kerosene lanterns. Moonlight shines on a crowd of gauzy structures supported by bits of twine. Nets and tents are illuminated from the lamps inside, and a bonfire is sending neon orange sparks into the sky. This is elver city, the small seasonal community that springs up each year when glass eels head upstream to mature.
There are dozens of similar clusters on riverbanks and estuaries along the coast of Maine. Eeling is big business, bringing in as much as 11.5 million dollars a year. Some eelers use a dip net and move from river to river, but many fishermen come back to the same spot year after year, and some even set up camp by their nets. It is a closed fishery, licenses are only available if someone dies or fails to obey the rules. Hopeful new eelers have a long wait.
I find the temporary row of nets and tents fascinating. Across the water there are two figures working side by side. They have hip boots on, head lamps to see what their hands are doing, and they are in constant motion. They may be talking to each other, but all I can hear is the river. A few other workers are heading to their sites, creating a wavering column of lights making its way steadily downstream.
Eels prefer to migrate in darkness and so eelers need to fish at night. The roar of the river drowns any comradely shouts or clanks of equipment. It gives the scene an eerie quality, as if the participants are talking and moving without making any sound. It is a great spectator activity, but it has other rewards for those who work at it night after night.
Rhonda Sawyer is one of the fishermen with an eel net on the Union River in Ellsworth. She has been eeling for several years, and each year returns to the same location.
“I know every root, stump, branch and rock of this place,” Rhonda says. “I think I own it.” She tied a rope to a fence to help her climb down the steep bank where she has her net. Each year she returns to the same location to claim her space, which the owner’s gave her permission to use. This year she arrived early in the morning on March 22 to secure her spot, although she cannot actually set her net until noon when the season officially opens..
Rhonda eels because she likes adventure, new things to try, and, as she says, “The money is really good.” She also likes just being on the river. “I grew up on Mount Desert Island, lived in Ellsworth, and passed the river many times, but never really thought about it. It was just that stream. Now I listen to the water, and pay attention to the tides. And it is so peaceful down here.”
Rhonda started with a hand-me-down net, full of holes. “I did not get much that first year,” she laughs. She invested in a new net last year. Like many eelers she uses a fyke net. This is a cone-shaped netting bag mounted on rings. It has wings, and Rhonda is learning to adjust them depending on tide and water flow. With her improving skills she anticipates meeting her quota well before the season is over. Every eel fisherman has a quota based in part on their catch of the previous year. The first year her quota was only five pounds.
Rhonda became interested in eeling after hearing from her boyfriend about the state lottery, and then listening to her brothers, nieces, nephews and other family eelers talking about it. Her brothers also eel on the Union, and one brother is only a few nets away. “They taught me everything, I had no clue what to do when I started. They even gave me an old net,” she says. “They were not allowed to actually touch anything of mine, though, or help me carry things.”
Rhonda did not win a license when the state had a lottery for them, but learned that the Penobscot tribe was holding a lottery for a few of the coveted licenses. Rhonda entered her name and won one of them. She does not plan to give it up.
Eeling can make for sleepless nights. Rhonda checks her net a few hours after high tide, and when high tide is one am it means disrupted sleep. “I am a walking zombie, I have not had five straight hours of sleep in a while,” she says, but she is cheerful about it.
Rhonda is also a Mortgage Loan Specialist at Bar Harbor Savings and Loan, so needs to get up early and make the drive to Bar Harbor. After work, she gets home, sleeps a bit, and when the alarm goes off jumps up to tend her net. Weekends she has daylight to check her equipment for holes, wash off any scum and algae, and pull out the twigs and debris that have accumulated.
Her boyfriend has an opposite schedule. He digs clams, and that means low tide. Rhonda’s daughter works the night shift at a restaurant in Ellsworth. As Rhonda describes it, “Our front entry is like a revolving door, one person goes in, someone else goes out.”
The fishery has changed in the past few years. My brother-in-law had an eeling license before the prices had risen, and did not bother to renew. That would not be likely to happen today. Once prices rose to about a thousand dollars a pound poaching became an issue. Rhonda recalls coming down to check her net and finding it had been cut, and the elvers all taken. She was devastated. That is not likely to happen anymore, either. Now there are swipe cards, and eelers stand in line with their catch waiting for the dealer the weigh it, and then credit their cards with the weight of the catch. They are then issued a check, so there is no more untraceable cash changing hands.
Technology may keep track of eeler’s catches, but it has yet to make major inroads on the river. There it is kerosene lanterns, handmade nets, and crude twine infrastructure attaching nets to trees. Headlamps bob eerily in the mist, and a surreal timelessness pervades. Eels migrate in the dark as they have for centuries. It feels fitting that they are fished in a manner that would not have been out of place two hundred years ago.
Value: The 11.5 million dollar figure was from 2015: http://mainepublic.org/post/maine-fishermen-warm-weather-could-mean-more-productive-elver-season