ROCKPORT, Maine — If there is any delay to the start of Maine’s 2014 elver season, it would be to get new elver regulations finalized by the Legislature and would only last for a few days, according to Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.
It would have nothing to do with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, he said.
Keliher, who was attending the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport on Friday, was clarifying a report distributed Thursday by The Associated Press.
By statute, the season starts each year on March 22 and runs for 10 weeks, through the end of May.
The state and the tribe have been working on an agreement aimed at avoiding a repeat of the 2013 elver season, when a dispute over the tribe’s elver licensing authority led to riverside confrontations and dozens of members of the tribe being charged with fishing without a license. Those charges later were dismissed by prosecutors who said it was not fair to criminally charge fishermen who had been caught up in an intergovernmental dispute between the state and the tribe.
Negotiations between DMR and tribal officials were close to a final agreement when the state attorney general’s office raised constitutional concerns over some of the provisions in the proposed deal. The legal hurdles cited by the state’s attorneys were whether the tribe can be barred from using large, funnel-shape fyke nets if nontribal fishermen can, and whether individual quotas and penalties could be imposed on nontribal fishermen if the tribe did not have any individual quotas.
Despite these concerns, state officials have said other parts of the proposed agreement can still move ahead. Those provisions include a cumulative 1,650-pound limit for the entire tribe, no limit on the number of dip net licenses that the tribe can issue, and a requirement that each licensed fisherman — tribal and nontribal — use state-issued swipe cards that track their landings each time they sell their catch.
Keliher said Friday that it could take the department two weeks to process the licenses submitted by the tribe and then to issue those license holders swipe cards, but he said that process would not have any effect on the statutory start of the elver season.
There are two bills submitted in the Legislature that would impose regulations on the 2014 elver season — one that addresses the implementation of quotas and another that addresses enforcement issues.
Because of parliamentary procedures, one bill that refers to the other would have to be adopted before the second one could be, Kelliher said, which could result in a delay of two or three days to the start of the season. The new rules would give Keliher the authority to delay the start of the season, he said.
Keliher added that, given the cold weather and heavy amounts of snow the state has received this winter, a delay of a few days to the start of the elver season likely would not have a significant effect. The weather is expected to impose a natural delay on when the juvenile eels start swimming into Maine’s tidal estuaries, he said.
Maine’s elver fishery has come under scrutiny in recent years as the average price fishermen have received for the catch skyrocketed from less than $100 per pound to more than $1,800 per pound in 2012 and 2013. Landings in Maine’s elver fishery, valued at more than $30 million, have become the second most valuable in Maine, behind the state’s $364 million lobster fishery.
Regulators have concerns about the number of American eels along the East Coast, however, and so have placed many restrictions aimed at limiting the amount that can be harvested each year.