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A Brunswick hairdresser makes bank in the lucrative elver fishery.

On late winter 2013, Laine Laliberte sat at her computer, helping her boyfriend register for a Department of Marine Resources lottery. There were four spots open in the Maine elver fishery and he wanted one. So did a lot of people. The baby eels, mostly sold to Asian markets to be farmed to full size, had topped out at an almost unbelievable price of $2,600 a pound the previous season. Maine is one of only two states with an elver fishery so competition for those four spots would be fierce.

Laine Laliberte brings her eels to sell at the Maine Eel Trade & Aquaculture buying station in Portland. Photo by Liz Caron

“He says, ‘Oh, put your name in too,’” Laliberte remembers, making herself a cup of coffee at her hair salon she owns in Brunswick, Anew Studio. Her boyfriend said if she won the lottery, he’d help her figure out how to do it. It only cost $28 to submit her name. What were the chances? She put her name in. “Knowing nothing,” Laliberte says. “Except that you needed a net. How hard could that be?”

She landed one of what turned out to be 25 permits that year (the state expanded the licensing). “Most people know what they are signing up for,” she says. “I totally did not.”

This lucrative Maine fishery is not a walk in the park. Poaching remains a problem, despite policing efforts. In April, four Maine residents were arrested in Massachusetts, charged with having both heroin and illegally obtained baby eels in their car. With all the cash that changes hands, there is always the possibility of being robbed. A newly licensed person who parks themselves at a hot spot an old timer considers “theirs” might well encounter some intimidation. Laliberte plunged in anyway.

That first season she didn’t do all that well. The price was lower, under $1,000 a pound. She scouted in Harpswell with the boyfriend and his friend, both of whom were convinced they could help her find a fresh spot on their own. “Because he wasn’t listening to someone who could help us,” Laliberte says. Her voice drops to a confiding whisper, the trademark of a good hairdresser.

“You know men,” she says.

Tiny, nearly transparent and bound for Maine’s inland lakes and rivers to grow to adulthood, these baby eels have traveled all the way from the Sargasso Sea. No one knows quite how they choose their entry point on the Maine coast. Photo by Liz Caron

The boyfriend is long gone, but the elver license lives on. Women are still in the minority in the fishery, but not by much. Nearly 1,200 elver licenses were issued or renewed in 2019, according to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, 39 percent of them to women, up about a half a percent from 2018. Laliberte has gotten steadily better at it as the years go by. She’s determined and persistent. It helps that she’s a longtime outdoorswoman. She grew up in North Dakota but went to Girl Scout camp in Minnesota as a child and never wanted to leave. Her family fished lakes together every summer, often for walleye.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in March, Laliberte and her friend Meredith Perry, who also won the license lottery in 2013, are surveying a steep embankment that leads down to a salt marsh and a cove. The potential fishing spot is a stream on the other side of the inlet. It’s low tide, easy to get across now if you don’t mind getting a little muddy, but by the next high tide, around midnight, the inlet will be filled and it would be a scramble to the fishing spot.

Laliberte fished for four nights—eight hour shifts each time—and sold her catch for $8,961.63. She’ll use it to travel, to Canada this month and California in the fall. Photo by Liz Caron

They’ve driven down a long dirt road to get to this spot, extracting promises not to reveal the name of the town it’s in. Suffice it to say, it’s Midcoast, and one of those places that probably comes to life in the summer, but that you’d never just stumble across. Laliberte learned about it from Cory Hawkes, the eel dealer she usually sells to in either Waldoboro or Portland. She’s already sussed out this spot’s potential the weekend before but she’s careful, methodical and worried about how they’d get out of the spot with a bucket or two filled with baby eels. She wants Perry’s input. Perry’s arms are folded. “It’s steep,” she says.

Perry is a nurse. She’s petite and dressed for the cold but both women look more like they’re going on a hike than fishing. Once they get down the hill, they have to make their way across marsh and muck to get to the mouth of the stream that the elvers are said to favor. As they pick their way across the mud to that spot, they come upon an abandoned fyke net from previous seasons. A fyke net gets stretched across part of a stream bed—the rules are strict about what proportion can be blocked—and collects the baby eels. The tiny, transparent creatures are about 6 inches long, like a good-sized garden worm, but much smaller in diameter; the mesh on the nets has to be very fine. Perry and Laliberte don’t use fyke nets, mostly because they have small quotas, the amount they can catch, a determination based on what they caught that first year they fished. They use dip nets instead.

In 2018, Laliberte, who is also a licensed cosmetologist and esthetician, spent 14 nights fishing before she hit her quota. Most of the time she was up in Bristol, but that area is favored by Maine’s Native American tribes, and the competition for the right place to stand was so fierce that this season, Laliberte was determined to find a more private spot. She’d actually been here once before, that first year, but the boyfriend and his friend took a look and poo-pooed it.

“It’s a nice little spot,” Hawkes says. “There is actually some poundage that goes up it annual. For her and Meredith with their small quotas, it’s seems like a perfect spot. They can go there and be by themselves. They don’t have to deal with the hustle and bustle of some of the big rivers. Just got to work a little harder to get there.”

And back. Assuming the elvers show up, how do you get across this inlet and back to the path up the steep hill when the cold water rises to the rocks, in the dark of night? Laliberte proposes a canoe transport. “I don’t want to get in a canoe,” Perry says. Laliberte would consider it. Her first job as a teenager was working on a conservation crew on Lake Superior National Forest. She knows the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness well. But winter has been holding on tenaciously this year, and going over the side in this kind of cold could be a death sentence.

A pound of elvers typically contains about 2,000 eels. Photo by Liz Caron

The two women walk up the stream bed, talking strategies. They debate where else they could go that night on the high tide. Laliberte knew a good spot at Sebasco Estates in Phippsburg, but she also knew the guy that typically parks himself in it. One of the complicating factors about elver fishing is that you can’t stand in the water, you have to stand on ground near it. In other words, wading into the middle of a stream and dropping your net is not allowed. Nor is reaching into the middle third of a stream from the banks; the idea is to fish the margins, giving the greatest proportion of the baby eels the chance to make it up the stream and into the rivers. That’s about sustaining a fishery that, given the financial enticements, could very well collapse if it weren’t carefully regulated. Laliberte is careful to obey all the rules, including the one that says no one without a license can carry your bucket out for you. The very first time she fished with her ex-boyfriend, she says a game warden materialized out of seemingly nowhere to check that they were following the regulations.

But ultimately, the two women decided to make an attempt at this new spot. It felt like it could be theirs. They returned at 10 p.m., traveling light with just buckets, nets and only headlamps to guide them back to the spot. Perry took an unplanned tumble into the water but got right back up. They were warmer than they expected, dipping and moving those nets as they fished for three hours straight. They stayed 90 minutes after the high tide, cleaning their wriggling catch using a small aquarium style net that made it easier to pick sand fleas out the catch and deciding ultimately to risk carrying the eels out in just a net. “I couldn’t carry four gallons of water up that hill,” Laliberte explains. They hugged the shore of the inlet and got back to the other side without a problem. The grand total for both women that night? $1,850 worth of baby eels. “I feel like I’ve been on ‘Survivor,’” Laliberte texted the next morning. Was this spot worth the trouble? “Yes hell yes,” she answered.

Photo by Liz Caron

Before April was over, they’d met their quotas. Four nights, worth $8,961.63 for Laliberte. She’ll use it to travel, to Canada this month and California in the fall. Each fishing shift took a solid eight hours, overnight shifts since the eels are easiest to catch at night. Laliberte is not complaining, but she does still marvel at the twist of fate that landed her this side hustle. “If somebody would have said, ‘Laine when you are 50 you are going to be fishing for eels off the coast of Maine in the middle of the night’ I would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine. She first wrote about the elver fishery in Maine in 2014 for the Portland Press Herald’s Source section.