ELLSWORTH, Maine — Even though federal officials are looking into whether elver fishing might be adversely affecting the abundance of American eels, the number of elver fishing licenses in the state of Maine went up by more than 50 percent last week.
But it wasn’t the Maine Department of Marine Resources that issued the 236 new licenses in the middle of the 2012 elver fishing season. It was the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
Licenses have been hotly sought-after this year, with demand for eels in the Far East pushing prices for the juvenile eels above $2,000 per pound. Up until last year, the average annual price Maine fishermen got for elvers had never been higher than $350 per pound.
Officials with Marine Patrol, the law enforcement division of DMR, have said the high price is the reason they’ve been busier than ever this spring with elver fishing violations, most of which have been for people fishing for the small, transparent juvenile eels without licenses. In order to protect the resource, DMR has capped the number of licenses it issues each year at 407.
Elvers are juvenile eels that spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and then migrate each spring to shore and into freshwater, where they grow into adults that eventually return to sea to breed. Maine fishermen are allowed to catch elvers only along tidal waterways that connect the Gulf of Maine to the state’s lakes and rivers.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Tuesday that the Passamaquoddy decision to issue 236 new licenses last week caught the department by surprise. He said the tribe was given authority by the Legislature in the mid-1990s to issue fishing licenses but, because of the timing of when that authority was granted, there has not been a limit on the number of elver licenses the tribe can give to its members.
Last year, when demand for elvers took off and the average per-pound price soared to nearly $900, he said, the Passamaquoddys issued only two elver licenses. Even though the price consistently has been at least double that this year, DMR did not expect the tribe to issue significantly more licenses than it did in 2011, he said.
Keliher said he is concerned that the move could put even greater scrutiny on the elver resource, which is being considered for possible listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Both the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have expressed concerns about the depleted state of the American eel population, he said, and have been weighing tighter restrictions, or perhaps even a ban, on the harvesting of elvers.
“This fishery is under the spotlight right now,” Keliher said. “We don’t want to do anything to force the listing of the species.”
The licenses issued by the Passamaquoddys are good for the 2012 season only, Keliher said, which is expected to end May 31. He said that because of issues such as gear availability and the requirement to get access permission from landowners, he doesn’t think all the Passamaquoddy licenses are in use or will be put to use before the season ends.
Of the 236 licenses issued, 20 are for hand-dip nets only and the rest each allow the license holder to use one dip net and one fyke net, which is a fixed, cone-shaped net placed at the edges of tidal waterways that funnel the eels into traps, according to DMR officials.
Attempts Tuesday and Wednesday to contact Passamaquoddy officials at Indian Township and Pleasant Point about their decision to issue the licenses to tribal members were unsuccessful.
Keliher said he traveled last week to Washington County to speak with tribal leaders about the situation. He said they told him the reason they issued the licenses was to provide economic opportunities to their fellow tribal members.
The Passamaquoddy decision has not been popular among many other Maine elver fishermen or would-be fishermen. DMR officials said they received many phone calls in the past week from people who are upset by the sudden influx of licenses by the tribe.
George Forni, an elver fishermen in Sullivan who also works as a buyer for a dealer based in Woolwich, said Tuesday he has fished for elvers for years, including when the price was below $50 per pound in the early 2000s. He said some fishermen are licensed to use hand-dip nets only, while others are licensed specifically to use either one or two fyke nets.
Forni said other people who have been waiting to get into the fishery — or licensed fishermen like him who would like state approval to set two fyke nets instead of one — should be able to benefit from the sanctioned increase in fishing effort. The latest going price for elvers is $2,300 per pound, he said, and a lot of people could use the money they would make from catching a pound or more for a night’s work.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Forni said.
He added that many licensed elver fishermen are worried that the jump in fishing effort could backfire. More elvers being caught could reduce the price but worse than that, he said, federal regulators could interpret it as a serious threat to the sustainability of the fishery and decide to shut the whole thing down.
“Is there going to be a fishery next year because of this?” Forni said, echoing the concerns of many. “To me, this is going to be flooding the market and it’s going to give the feds more ammunition to shut us down.”
Jeff Card of Ellsworth agrees with Forni. Card, who has had an elver license for seven years, said Wednesday that members of the tribe should have to go through the DMR license process like everybody else. That means either not getting one, because of the limit, or trying their luck in occasional lotteries DMR holds for the handful of licenses that become available each year.
Card said he thinks eels will end up getting listed as threatened or endangered — a decision that is expected to be made sometime this summer.
“I think they’re going to shut it down,” Card said.
According to Keliher, during the most recent legislative session other Indian tribes in Maine were granted the same authority to issue fishing licenses to their members. Those tribes, however, have to adhere to up-to-date limits on the number of licenses that can be issued statewide.
Keliher said the Legislature’s marine resources committee was aware during this past session that the Passamaquoddys have to observe license limits only for the urchin and lobster fisheries that were in place when the tribe was granted license-issue authority in the mid-1990s. The decision was made this past session, he added, to sit down with the tribes at a later date to discuss the issue of uniform license restrictions.
“This has highlighted the need to do that sooner rather than later,” Keliher said of making sure all the tribes observe the same limits.
Possible federal listing of American eels as threatened or endangered will be his chief concern when elver license limits are discussed, he said.
Just in March, the Legislature adopted a new law that set higher fines for elver fishing violations but also limited the amount of elver gear that can be used statewide. The law allows the number of licenses to go up as long as the existing limit on the amount of gear that is in use is spread out over a greater number of licensees.
Only three years ago, before the price spike, the average per-pound price elver fishermen in Maine got for their catch was below $100. In 2010 it was $185 but, after the March 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster, it spiked to nearly $900 per pound, according to DMR statistics. The estimated value of the fishery in Maine for 2011 was $7.6 million, up from $584,000 the year before.
Forni said that shutting down the elver fishery would aggravate what already is considered a sputtering economy in Maine which, along with South Carolina, is one of only two states where elver fishing is allowed.
“It’s going to be millions of dollars that won’t be there anymore,” Forni said.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.