ELLSWORTH, Maine — Even though Maine has promised to reduce its statewide elver harvest this year by 35 percent, licensed elver fishermen are not facing as sharp a reduction in what they caught last year.
Licensed elver dealers reported to the Maine Department of Marine Resources that they handled 18,253 pounds of the juvenile American eels during last year’s 10-week elver season. The cumulative catch total reported by fishermen, however, was about 14,000 pounds, or 4,000 pounds less than what dealers reported. The discrepancy, DMR officials have said, can be attributed to illegal importation of poached elvers from out of state.
Maine and South Carolina are the only two states where elver fishing is permitted and Maine is the only state that has a sizable harvest. Smuggling illegally harvested elvers into Maine, and the effect this has on East Coast eel stocks, has been cited by regulators as a major concern about how Maine’s $38 million elver fishery has been managed.
The 4,000 extra pounds reported last year by Maine elver dealers was used to determine the 35 percent catch reduction promised to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. If Maine fishermen reported catching 14,000 pounds and the target catch limit for 2014 is 11,749 pounds (including the catch by Maine’s Indian tribes), then elver fishermen actually are facing a reduction of about 14 percent from what they reported last year.
DMR officials hope to deter poaching in the upcoming season that starts March 22 by imposing an individual catch quota on each licensed fisherman that will be based on that fisherman’s recent catch history. If each fisherman can catch only so many elvers, the thinking goes, he will be much less inclined to illegally sell elvers caught by someone without a license and having to share the profit with the poacher. The licensed fisherman could make more money catching and selling his own quota of elvers.
A planned swipe card system that will keep live track of each elver fisherman’s sales as they happen is expected to keep a close count on the amount each fisherman has caught and on the overall statewide landings.
Management of Maine’s elver fishery has changed dramatically in the past three years and continues to change because prices have soared for the tiny eels, the vast majority of which are shipped live to the Far East to be raised to adult stage for the regional seafood market.
A March 2011 tsunami that destroyed aquaculture ponds in Japan, combined with quickly escalating demand in China, have increased the average price that Maine elver fishermen get for their catch by a factor of ten. The average statewide price elver fishermen got in Maine in 2010 was $185 per pound, but by 2012 it was $1,866 per pound. The average statewide price for 2013 has not been released by DMR but fishermen say it is similar to what it was in 2012.