Could Maine hold an “elver derby” next year to control booming fishery?

Glenn Bernard (right) of Presque Isle and Sam Sockabasin of Princeton check Bernard's nets for eels to empty them for night fishing in the Penobscot River near Brewer in May.
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Glenn Bernard (right) of Presque Isle and Sam Sockabasin of Princeton check Bernard's nets for eels to empty them for night fishing in the Penobscot River near Brewer in May. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 11, 2013, at 6:58 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 12, 2013, at 7:21 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Should the state implement individual quotas for elver fishermen next spring, or should it just set a statewide quota and use a derby approach?

According to feedback Maine Department of Marine Resources officials received at a meeting Wednesday afternoon, individual catch quotas based on each fisherman’s catch history seemed to be the most palatable way to reduce statewide elver landings next spring. Because of concerns about the declining population of American eels, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission has ordered Maine to reduce its annual harvest of the juvenile eels by between 25 percent and 40 percent.

But there were some fishermen among the 90 or so people who attended the meeting at the Augusta Civic Center who favor a different approach. A derby fishery, in which Maine DMR would set a statewide cap and let everyone fish until that cap was reached, could allow some licensed fishermen to catch as much as they did this past spring or even more. The potential for a big payday for the pricey eels, for which dealers paid fishermen around $1,600 per pound last spring, would still be there, they said.

“What we’re talking about here is money and greed,” said licensed elver fisherman Tim LaRochelle of Woolwich. “I would support a derby fishery.”

The prices fishermen have been paid for elvers have skyrocketed since 2011, when demand in Asia soared in the wake of a tsunami that wiped out eel stocks in aquaculture ponds in coastal Japan. Maine fishermen were paid an average price of $185 per pound in 2010, when the total value of the statewide catch was $585,000. In 2012, fishermen on average were paid more than $1,800 per pound and the total value of the statewide catch was more than $38 million, according to DMR statistics.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of DMR, said Wednesday that he has serious concerns about a derby fishery, mainly because of resulting law enforcement problems. He said the perception that migrating elvers show up in some rivers in southern and midcoast Maine before they show up in others — there is some debate over whether this is true, he added — would create even more of a gold-rush mentality than already exists in the annual 10-week fishery.

Fishermen from all over the state would compete fiercely to fish in certain parts of those rivers, he said, which inevitably would lead to gear conflicts and more likely than not altercations. For Maine Marine Patrol, he said, it would be a “nightmare.”

Fishermen did not voice support for imposing identical quotas on everyone — 20 pounds total per year per fisherman, for example — because of the wide disparity of what fishermen catch. Some report catching fewer than 10 pounds during the season while others report having caught more than 100, according to industry officials.

Imposing individual quotas, whether based on historical catches or not, does have one advantage, fishermen and officials agreed. It would strongly discourage poaching. Licensed fishermen who have been willing to illegally sell elvers caught by other people in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds would have an economic incentive to stop doing so, they said, if they could catch their maximum allotment and keep all the proceeds for themselves.

DMR officials have said they plan to require fishermen and dealers to use swipe cards to electronically tally transactions to help keep better track of landings, which they said also would make it harder to buy and sell poached eels.

Keliher acknowledged that whatever way the state decides to reduce landings before the next season starts in March 2014, some people will be unhappy with it.

“Whatever we do, it’s not going to be fair,” he said.

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