ELLSWORTH, Maine — Federal regulators have agreed to delay taking action on possible new management rules for the American eel fishery until next spring, which means Maine’s annual spring elver fishery will be allowed to proceed next March.
In exchange for the delay, however, Maine regulators have promised the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that it will develop a plan to reduce the 2014 statewide elver harvest by 25-40 percent. Elvers are juvenile American eels.
According to state and federal regulators, preliminary totals indicate that more than 18,000 pounds of elvers were harvested in Maine this past spring. A 25-40 percent reduction in the catch would result in Maine limiting its harvest in 2014 to between roughly 11,000 and 13,700 pounds.
In recent years, Maine’s 10-week elver fishery has become the second-most lucrative in the state, behind Maine’s $340 million lobster fishery. Prices that elver fishermen in Maine have received for their catch have soared since 2011, at times exceeding $2,000 per pound. According to fishermen and dealers, prices this past spring settled around $1,500 to $1,700 per pound.
ASMFC officials indicated Thursday that the estimated value of Maine’s 2013 elver harvest is nearly $33 million. Maine DMR and the Passamaquoddy Tribe have been in a dispute over how many elver licenses the Indian tribe can issue each year, but the total number of licenses issued in Maine has been limited to between approximately 400 and nearly 1,000 in each of the past three years.
On Wednesday, the ASMFC eel management board voted at a meeting in Georgia to delay taking action on adopting new rules for the American eel fishery until next spring. Any newly adopted rules would not go into effect until 2015.
Tina Berger, spokeswoman for ASMFC, indicated Thursday in an email that Maine is expected to work with licensed elver fishermen and dealers to determine how to reach the 25-40 percent reduction.
“There are no specific requirements imposed by the [ASMFC eel] board” on how the cuts are to be achieved, Berger said. “Maine will report back to the board in February regarding its intended plan of action.”
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of DMR, said Thursday in a prepared statement that the delay in adopting new rules will allow regulators to include the most recent data on the elver fishery.
“This decision will also give me time to work with [the] industry to find common ground and an approach forward,” Keliher said.
The estimated 2013 catch total of 18,253 pounds is about 2,500 pounds less than the catch total from the prior year, when Maine fishermen netted 20,764 pounds, according to DMR statistics. The overall value to fishermen of Maine’s 2012 catch total was more than $38 million.
How the mandated reduction might affect the Passamaquoddy Tribe was not clear Thursday. State and tribal officials did not respond to requests for comment about how the catch reduction mandate might affect the licensing dispute between the tribe and DMR.
The state, seeking to comply with an earlier ASMFC directive to limit the number of licenses statewide to no more than 744, last March limited the tribe to 200 licenses. The tribe countered that DMR does not have the authority to set such a tribal limit and last year initially issued 575 licenses to its members. The tribe later reduced the active number of licenses to 475, invalidating licenses that it said were not being used.
The tribe has said that, unlike DMR, it sets a cumulative catch limit for its license holders, which it contends is a more effective way to protect the resource from overfishing. Not long after the season started in March, the dispute turned ugly when DMR, which issued 432 licenses to non-Indians, got into a confrontation with tribal members in Pembroke and confiscated several Passamaquoddy fishing nets.
Elvers, also known as glass eels, migrate each spring from the Atlantic Ocean into freshwater rivers, streams and lakes along the East Coast. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that allow elver harvesting, with Maine netting the vast majority of the American catch. Most elvers are shipped to Asia, where they are raised to adult size for sale in the region’s seafood markets.
Due to concerns about the impact that fishing, dams and other influences have had on the population of American eels, the species currently is under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act.
According to ASMFC officials, new requirements in an updated fishery management plan for the American eel fishery could include the allowance of glass eel fisheries in states where harvest is currently prohibited, a coastwide quota, monitoring requirements, enforcement measures and associated penalties, quota transferability and timely reporting.