In Maine, a black market for baby eels has gotten so bad that the Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources says it's like a drug trade.
"When there's this much money involved, people are going to break the law," said Commissioner Patrick Keliher. "The higher the price, the bigger the problem becomes."
Illegal elver sales have gotten so out of control, the commissioner has shut down the two-month fishery two weeks early.
"I am incredibly frustrated that this is happening," he said.
Keliher said the Marine Patrol started receiving information about five weeks ago that elver harvesters and dealers were using cash for transactions instead of state-issued swipe cards that keep quota records.
This allowed people to buy and sell on the black market, going over their individual quotas. The commissioner said their investigation is still underway, and several buyers and sellers will be facing criminal charges.
"This is a greed-driven issue and we need to find a way to stop it," said Keliher.
This year, baby eels were selling for about $2,500 per pound. Maine fishermen sell their catch to Asian markets, where they are farmed for food.
There are only 425 licenses in the state, and those lucky enough to catch baby eels can make a lot of money in a short period of time.
"Fishing three to four hours a night, I can make $4,000," said Abden Simmons, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen's Association and a state representative from Waldoboro.
He said fishermen who have not yet met their individual quotas will now have to sit on the sidelines and lose out on large amounts of money due to someone else being greedy.
"We are in the potential wake of losing this fishery completely, and it was a $24 million industry this year," said Simmons. "It is disheartening."
Keliher said it's too soon to say how this issue will impact the fishery going forward, but it will be a major topic of conversation for regulators.
"We have to figure out if there's a way to totally control the situation at hand," he said.