In the coming weeks the Maine Department of Marine Resources will propose a method to more closely track elver landings for next year in an attempt to gain some control over the elver harvest.
Is this action enough?
Absolutely not. There remain fundamental questions that need to be addressed about this resource before a sustainable harvest can be achieved. But let’s look back to last year.
Last May, dozens of cars and trucks mysteriously appeared along the lower Penobscot River. Scores of nets lined the river below Veazie, and individuals with dip nets were common. The word was out: “The elvers have reached Bangor.” Scores of Maine’s elver fishermen from all over the state pulled their nets elsewhere and flocked to the shores of the Penobscot. After the season was over, reminders of their greed remained — ropes, lines and concrete blocks littered the shores of the Penobscot.
The people of Maine, the Legislature, DMR and National Marine Fisheries Service should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this pillage of a resource to continue. Little is known about eels and their populations.
For example, how many elvers are ascending our rivers, how many are being harvested, how many escape the gauntlet of nets, and how many are needed to maintain a viable adult population in each river?
Fisheries scientists don’t even know if the elvers ascending the Penobscot are the younger generation of adult eels from that river, or if they are a random group of elvers from adults up and down the Atlantic coast. What we do know is that it will be 20 or more years before the tiny elvers ascending the Penobscot will become adults and return to the ocean to spawn, long after those responsible for their management are gone.
Currently, nets are set a minimum distance apart, two out of seven days are closed to fishing, and we are told that most of the river — the center — is open for elver travel. Great, but is a tiny elver, the size of a toothpick, more likely to brave the surging spring current or hug the shore seeking nooks and eddies to make its way?
The Asian market driving this harvest is offering outlandish prices for a pound of elvers. Just as with urchins 30 years ago, we are exploiting a resource with little regard for the long-term health of the population. The prices are so high that fines for illegal fishing are no deterrent, and DMR does not begin to have the personnel to enforce the laws that do exist.
When I was a commissioner for the State Department negotiating commercial harvest quotas for Atlantic salmon, the North Atlantic nations adopted the precautionary principle as a management guideline. In other words, do not harvest a species until the long-term impacts on populations are known. Harvest limits were conservative. For eels, we are violating this principle in every way.
The lucrative elver fishery is driven by greed, not science. Armed dealers protect their turf. Elvers poached illegally in other states are smuggled into Maine. Our $38 million fishery has turned into a free-for-all with DMR and one Maine Indian tribe issuing more than 700 permits. South Carolina, the only other state on the East Coast to allow elver fishing, issues just 10 permits by lottery and allows fishing on only one river.
What should we do?
As the eel is being considered for federal threatened or endangered species status, Maine should at least follow other eastern states and eliminate harvest until core management concerns are addressed.
Barring that, some immediate steps that should be taken include: permit fishing on only one bank of a river; allow fishing three days per week; close some streams and rivers to elver fishing; set a maximum limit on the number of nets and dippers for each river based on the amount of accessible lake and pond surface area within the watershed; increase the minimum distance between nets; increase the fines commensurate with the value of the fishery. Maine could also, perhaps, institute a landing tax, augment the DMR enforcement force with a seasonal patrol and wardens from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, increase the license fees and direct the additional funds to enforcement and require landowner permission.
Most importantly, we must answer the biological questions needed so we can have a sustainable fishery.
Limiting license numbers will do little to protect this resource. Demand will go up, prices will escalate, illegal activities will increase, and there is no guarantee that the harvest will be reduced substantially.
What is occurring on our rivers is a travesty. Astronomical prices are creating a gold rush, and we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to put a stop to it. Just as with urchins and cod, Mainers will regret our lack of management action today. However, with eels, it will take decades to be revealed.
Bucky Owen of Orono served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife from 1993-1997. He is also a former U.S. State Department commissioner for the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.