Elver harvesters a ‘renegade’ fishery? Not this year, fishermen are cautioned by state officials

Glenn Bernard of Presque Isle fingers through his elver catch from the previous night to try and find eels small enough to sell in Brewer on Friday, May 31, 2013.
BDN file photo
Glenn Bernard of Presque Isle fingers through his elver catch from the previous night to try and find eels small enough to sell in Brewer on Friday, May 31, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted March 01, 2014, at 4:32 p.m.
Last modified March 01, 2014, at 5:01 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — With big money changing hands over tiny glass eels, Maine’s elver fishermen have developed a bad reputation in other Atlantic states as renegades.

On Saturday afternoon, state officials told a packed room of elver harvesters at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum that they needed to change that this season so that regulators will not place drastic limitations on the fishery or shut it down altogether.

The most important step toward that goal will be to follow the recently set catch restrictions on the state’s 10-week elver season, which is scheduled to begin on March 22. Fishermen will be limited to a statewide harvest of 11,749 pounds, a 35 percent reduction from the amount caught in Maine last year. Some in the room called out that making individual quotas will be unfair toward the fishermen who have been working this fishery long before the price shot up as demand in Japan and China has increased. But state officials were unmoved.

“We’ve got to stay within our quota this year,” Terry Stockwell of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said during the first meeting of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association at the Samoset Resort. “We’ve got to demonstrate to the [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries] Commission that we’re not a renegade fishery.”

Col. Joseph Fessenden of the Maine Marine Patrol then told the assembly of fishermen that they could all help make or break the lucrative fishery. In the last few years, the average price fishermen have received for the catch has skyrocketed from less than $100 per pound to more than $1,800 per pound in 2012 and 2013, making it the state’s second most valuable fishery.

“Anybody that’s helping poachers could shut this fishery down,” he cautioned them.

Some of the fishermen in the room told officials that they would take those words seriously. Very seriously.

“Every fishery has unwritten rules. This year, they’re going to be enforced,” Perry Cloak, an opinionated elver harvester from Trenton, said. “If the lobstermen have unwritten rules — why can’t we?”

But even though he hastened to say he didn’t mean anyone would get hurt during the enforcement, Commissioner Patrick Keliher of the Department of Marine Resources said that he preferred a different type of self-policing.

“The guys in the green coats are the best ways and the fairest ways to enforce this law,” he said.

State officials suggested fishermen take photographs of license plates of people they believed were illegally harvesting the lucrative elvers, and send those pictures to the Maine Marine Patrol. They also encouraged fishermen to call and report suspicious activity to law enforcement agents.

Elver harvesters also asked for more information regarding how officials will divvy up the statewide quota. After tribal allocations are made, other harvesters in the state will be limited to catching about 8,710 pounds of the tiny eels. Keliher told the fishermen he cannot announce his final decision until the Maine Legislature regulates this spring’s harvest, but did say he is leaning strongly toward taking an average of two out of three years of fishing to determine individual quotas. He also said that he has a lot of faith that the new swipe card system will work to track daily landings around the state, but added that there’s no way that every fisherman will feel satisfied with the process.

“Earlier in the conversation, I heard a lot about fairness,” Keliher said. “There’s a lot we’re going to do that’s not going to feel fair.”

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