ELLSWORTH, Maine — With their newly lucrative industry coming under closer scrutiny from fishing regulators, elver fishermen have decided it is time to join together to make their concerns known in Augusta and out of state.
To that end, a group of about 50 met this week at the local Elks Club and formed the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association.
Darrell Young of Waltham organized the meeting and is one of four licensed elver fishermen who were picked to serve on the fledgling group’s board of directors. He said Friday that there is a lot more organizational work the group has to do, such as drafting bylaws and registering as a nonprofit, but that it hopes to be fully functional within the next week or so.
“Hopefully, we’ll get more people on board,” he said, noting that there are several hundred licensed elver fishermen in Maine. “The more people we get, the more power we’ll have.”
He said the group plans to attend three upcoming meetings the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission has scheduled next month in Maine so it can weigh in on new fishery management measures the multistate agency is considering for American eels. Elvers, or glass eels, are young American eels. Other eel fisheries in Maine and elsewhere along the East Coast, for yellow and silver eels, target later life stages of the same species.
Young said that though the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission has said the American eel population is depleted in U.S. waters, their population in Maine seems to be healthy. Aside from increased protections being considered by the fisheries commission, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also is considering listing the species under the federal Endangered Species Act, which could result in a ban on all American eel fisheries.
The fact that Maine licensed fishermen caught nearly $38 million worth of elvers in 2012 — which broke the previous record value by more than $30 million — shows how important the fishery has become in the past few years, Young said.
“It’s not depleted, by no means,” he said. “It definitely helps the economy.”
The average price Maine elver fishermen have earned for their catch soared from $185 per pound in 2010 to nearly $900 a year later after demand spiked in Asia following the Japanese tsunami in March 2011. Last year, the average price continued to skyrocket to nearly $2,000 per pound.
Prices dealers are offering fishermen this season, which began a week ago, range from $1,700 to $2,000 per pound, fishermen and state officials have said. Maine’s annual elver season runs from March 22 through May 31.
Young said that beyond data collected during the past several fishing seasons, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific information about the juvenile eels that could prove useful to management efforts. He said fishermen could collect and provide bycatch information to regulators and scientists and would like there to be scientific studies on elver migrations outside of Maine’s elver season.
Dresden resident Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of The Alewife Harvesters of Maine, said Friday that he also has been named executive director of the elver fishermen’s group, which shares a lot of the same interests with their counterparts in the alewife fishery. Since the initial meeting on Tuesday, membership in the elver group has swelled to about 90 people, he said.
Pierce said anyone is welcome to join, including members of Maine’s Indian tribes, and that annual membership dues are $250. He said the group intends to do what it can to discourage illegal poaching, which has become more of a problem as the fishery’s value has risen, and to promote sustainable management.
He said that many elver fishermen also have licenses for harvesting American eels during their more advanced yellow or silver life stages and have suggested eliminating those fisheries in Maine to better protect the species.
“There’s a million eggs in those [silver] eels,” he said. “We’re not greedy. We want a sustainable fishery.”