Elvers. Glass eels. Translucent money.

The harvesting of elvers, juvenile American eels known also as glass eels, may only last a couple months, but the demand makes them the second largest fishery in Maine. Lobster reigns king of crustaceans and third is a combination of haddock, clams, shrimp and scallops.

The season opened March 22, and runs until noon on May 31.

Although last year's numbers are not finalized yet, it is estimated that the total value of the fishery was $40 million with one pound going for nearly $2,600 at peak. This season started at $1,700 and has climbed to $2,100.

The fishery has been around since the 1970s in Maine, when the price was about $300 per pound. The average for the past 20 years had been $20 to $50 per pound.

"My wife and I were able to take our first vacation in 30 years," said Dale Dosette, of Albion, a dip net fisherman of 19 years. After only three weeks of recovering from open heart surgery last year, Dosette went out to fish.

"It worried my wife to death," he said, "but when I brought home that stack of cash and set it in front of her, it was all worth it."

"We can afford to fill the oil tank this year, instead of just getting $100 here and there," he said.

Two main factors have blown the price of this fishery out of the proverbial water.

"The tragic tsunami that hit Japan several years ago and the limited catch of the European eel also known as the anguilla anguilla," said Merton Sawyer, an avid glass eel fisherman and net maker from Rockland, are the culprits.

And not unlike any other hot commodity, everyone wants a piece of the action. However, because of the way the fishery is set up, there is very little wiggle room.

"I would say 80 percent of us are armed," said Dosette. The fishermen know the value of their catch, and being a cash and carry type of business, being careful and aware of their surroundings is vital, he said.

"I never go to a buyer on my own," said Meredith Perry, 38, of Tenants Harbor. Perry was among four winners of 5,000 who applied for open slots this past February.

The fishery currently runs on a lottery system, which was established in 2000. It was designed so that when one fisherman left, another was allowed in.

"This happened for a reason," said Perry, who had been out of work for two years following a work-related injury prior to applying for the elver fishing lottery.

Perry was actually applying for someone else, when she had the idea to put her name in.

"It's not for everybody," she said. "Like any fishery, it's brutal work."

"I get an adrenaline rush," Perry said. Being a registered nurse at Pen Bay Medical Center, she works nights as it is, so the odd hours of dip net fishing for elvers hasn't been an inconvenience at all.

"I feel fortunate," Perry said, "it's definitely been worth it."

The Maine Department of Marine Resources selected the Maine State Lottery to administer the drawing to be sure it was fair for all participants. The last time an elver lottery was held by the DMR was in 2006.

Most recently, a battle between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribal Government has brought the fishery under controversy. According to the state, the Passamaquoddys have the right to issue 200 of the state's more than 600 licenses total.

The state has alleged that the tribe issued 375 illegal licenses, and this volume could have a negative impact on the fishery itself. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that allow the harvesting of glass eels. South Carolina only issues five licenses, according to Maine Marine Patrol.

"All of a sudden it's their God given right to fish," said Dosette about the Passamaquoddys interest in the fishery now that the price is elevated.

"Where were they when it was only $50 a pound?" he said.

This year the DMR issued 435 licenses, 347 to males and 86 to females. Two applications did not specify gender.

The battle between the state and the Passamaquoddys continues, as does the warming trend and better opportunities for the elver fishermen. The colder temperatures of late have kept the fishery at a standstill, but the task at hand is to be ready each minute for the change in weather.

So what exactly are these little creatures all about?

The 3- to 4-inch long, translucent, American eels also known as anguilla rostrata float up the Gulf Stream and are deposited along the eastern seaboard from Florida to the Maritime Provinces of Canada. During the spring, they swim into the brackish water of Maine's streams. They stay there until the water and air are warm enough for them to move into a place where the stream is fresh water only.

There are several prominent places in the Midcoast area for this to occur, one being in Camden where the Atlantic Ocean water of the harbor meets the fresh water runoff from Megunticook River that flows underneath the Smiling Cow.

The glass eels are caught by one of two methods. Either the fisherman chooses a fyke net or a dip net approach.

The fyke net is a stabilized system that can sprawl up to 30 feet in length in the water. It has two wing nets and a tail bag at the head of it to capture the eels as they try to swim upstream to the fresh water. These can be tended at any time of day, but usually at low tide.

The dip net is just that; a net on the end of a pole. It is used at nighttime to dip into the water to catch glass eels freestyle trying to swim upstream to the fresh water. The dip net can be no more than 30 inches in diameter. Dip net fishermen are not allowed to stand in any body of water while fishing.

"The toe of my boot goes into the water, and I could pay a $250 fine," said Dosette.

No matter which approach is used, it costs to play. If a person is lucky enough to be able to renew their license or are subject to a lottery, it will cost $105 for the license and $58 additional if fishing with a fyke net. Fishing via dip net only has no additional cost, other than the equipment itself.

Once they are caught, the eels are then sold to a buyer. The buyer license is $1,200. There currently is no limit on the number of buyers this particular fishery can have. The buyers typically hold the eels for a couple days to make sure they are calmed from their capture experience, then they are packed in boxes with ice and oxygen and shipped primarily to Asia.

"The countries of South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Japan are the ones who purchase the bulk of the eels," said Sawyer.

They are then put into farm ponds and raised for approximately eight to 12 months until they are about a half pound each. The eels are then shipped into the markets or processed.

"They barbecue them, smoke them, and eat them as sushi as well," Sawyer said.

Strict rules govern the fishery to protect both the species as well as licensed fishermen. For the elvers, there are two mandatory closed periods during the season when nets cannot be tended. Tuesday noon to Wednesday noon, and Saturday noon to Sunday noon are times when buying and deal making can occur, but no elvers are allowed to be harvested.

Fines and penalties have increased substantially for elver offenses. Molesting elver gear, having untagged gear, fishing during the closed season or closed period carries fines of up to $2,000 and possibly permanent license revocation.

Harvesting without a license nets a financial fine and a criminal offense that could result in jail time.

According to the DMR, 25 violations have been recorded as of April 1.

There has been talk about shutting the fishery down for a myriad of different reasons: supply and demand, the tribal conflict.

"Once it is shut down, it will never be reopened again," Dosette believes.

Until that time, the fishery will continue gearing up for the warmer temperatures, when the real gold rush begins.

Courier Publications staff reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or by email at bbirmingham@courierpublicationsllc.com.