Maryland has the highest landings by weight of any state on the coast, but Keith Whiteford, a state Department of Natural Resources biologist who keeps tabs on elvers and their prey, said fishing pressure in state waters did not appear to be excessive. Surveys in a handful of Maryland waterways indicate the population has been on the rebound since the 1990s, he said, though he acknowledged that their numbers weren't as carefully tracked in prior decades.

"I think we fish them hard because we have a lot of eels," Whiteford said.

Not everyone is convinced. Leah Zabel, with the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability, said the California-based group believes that American eels are in much worse shape now than when it petitioned three years ago to have them protected from commercial harvest under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"It appears that poaching is an enormous problem,'' she said, with exports of eels from Canada and Maine alone said to be two to three times what the officially reported harvest was.

The center sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year after the agency acknowledged there were grounds to consider the petition.

The agency is working to restock the eel population in the Susquehanna River. Federal biologists reported they collected more than 270,000 young elvers below Conowingo Dam this spring and summer and released them upriver. In the past few years, they've trucked more than 400,000 above the dam.

Yet Steve Minkkinen, project leader in the service's Maryland Fishery Resource Office , said based on available habitat, there should be more than 11 million eels throughout the river. The federal effort is about more than restoring eels — they are primary hosts for a scarce freshwater mussel, the eastern elliptio. Scientists hope that restocking eels may revive the mussels and help the river's water quality, as elliptios are prolific filter feeders.

As the Atlantic states commission considers whether to order coastwide cuts in eel harvest, Trossbach's livelihood is up in the air.

On his first day fishing out of Solomons, Trossbach figured his catch was 400 to 450 pounds — a "decent" if not great haul.

At the dock, the two men scooped their catch into trash cans and carried them to a covered tank in the back of a pickup truck. In the last batch, two eels win a reprieve.

"I always let the last two go," he said, "so I have two to catch tomorrow."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com