ELLSWORTH, Maine — The 2014 elver fishing season is expected to come to a close Saturday, without the statewide catch quota being reached, according to state officials.
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said as it looked as though Maine fishermen had caught about 9,300 pounds — or 85 percent — of the statewide quota of 11,749 pounds as of Friday morning. That limit was adopted last winter by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission out of concern Maine’s elver fishery was having an adverse effect on the East Coast population of American eels.
Nichols said the estimate for the statewide landings total could change over the weekend as fishermen sell whatever they can catch before Saturday at noon, when all fishing gear must be out of the water.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a prepared statement Friday that the department is looking into several possible factors why the statewide catch total fell short of the mandated quota.
Keliher said the cold weather at the start of the season — which began April 6 after being delayed by two weeks as state officials sought to get new management measures in place — tends to discourage elvers from migrating upstream from the ocean into rivers and streams. He added that harvester activity was slow in the first week; with no more than 33 licensed fishermen, out of approximately 950 licensed statewide, were out fishing on any given day.
The department capped the number of elver licenses issued to 432, while the rest are issued by Maine’s Indian tribes to its members. Each fisherman in Maine was assigned an individual quota this year based on his or her historical catch volume.
This is the first year Maine had quotas on the amount of elvers — baby American eels — that could be harvested. In the past two years, after demand in Asia soared in 2011, Maine fishermen caught at least 18,000 pounds during each annual 10-week fishing season.
In 2013, the statewide haul was 18,076 pounds, which generated a total of $33 million in income for Maine fishermen. The year before, they caught a total of 20,764 pounds, cumulatively earning more than $38 million.
Keliher also said Friday the state has issued far fewer violations for fishing for elvers without a license this year than it did in 2013. He said Marine Patrol officers issued 219 such citations last year; only 13 have been issued this spring, though he said that’s an estimate that could tick upward.
Federal officials, however, have indicated they suspect significant illegal activity took place this year in the American eel fishery. Earlier this month, law enforcement officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with others from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Maine Marine Patrol, were in Ellsworth as part of a federal investigation.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have declined to comment in detail about the ongoing investigation, though they said law enforcement officers have conducted searches at several locations along the East Coast from South Carolina to Maine. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states where elver fishing is allowed, with Maine’s fishery being much larger than the one in South Carolina; fishing for adult eels is allowed in several states, including Maine.
As for the decline in state citations, Keliher said incidents of alleged poaching in Maine have dropped off sharply since 2013 because of the individual quotas. The new requirement for each fisherman to use a state-issued electronic transaction card when selling their catch also has helped, he added.
“This drastic decline in violations is a testament to the success of this new system in reducing illegal activity in Maine, in improving our ability to manage this critically important marine resource and in our ability to reduce the enforcement burden on neighboring states,” Keliher said.
Waltham resident Darrell Young, president of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, said Friday the price fishermen have received for their elvers stayed relatively high, compared to prices in the 2000s.
Young said he was getting $450 per pound when this season started in early April, which is low compared to average prices of more than $1,800 per pound in each of the prior two years. Still, $450 per pound is higher than pre-2011 prices, when the highest statewide average price was $346 per pound in 2007, according to DMR statistics.
With the season winding down, prices have been holding steady around $1,000 per pound, Young added. In a separate interview, Pat Bryant, a fisherman and elver dealer in Nobleboro, said prices rose to around $1,000 per pound.
Bryant and Young each said, despite the sub-quota statewide catch total, the run of elvers up Maine’s rivers and streams was strong this spring, and at times especially so.
“I think overall it was a good season,” Young said. “Short and sweet.”