BREWER, Maine — Maine’s elver fishers want to continue to be responsible participants in the fishery but fear a regulatory agency might reduce their catch so other states can cut in on the tiny-eel-harvesting industry.
In May, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission board approved Draft Addendum IV to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for the American eel, which proposes a range of “management options” aimed at reducing mortality rates and increasing conservation of American eel stocks.
The changes were proposed in response to a 2012 benchmark stock assessment that found the American eel population in U.S. waters was depleted, according to the commission.
The biggest concern for Maine eel fishers is the regulations surrounding glass eels, or elvers. In the 2014 season, Mainers caught 9,300 pounds — or 85 percent — of the statewide quota for the young American eels.
More than 50 fishers from across the state gathered on Monday afternoon at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer to learn more about what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering and offer its opinions.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission offered 10 ideas for conserving the elver fisheries.
There was heavy support among fishermen, the American Eel Sustainability Association and Maine Elver Fishermen Association for Option 1, which could allow the state to restore eel quotas to 2013 levels. However, both associations also said they’d be willing, if not more willing, to back Option 2, which would maintain regulations and quotas set in 2014 and show good faith toward ensuring cooperation with the state and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Other more drastic ideas that garnered stringent opposition during Monday’s meeting included shutting down the fishery, slashing a state’s quota if it exceeds the quota of the previous year, and another that would allow other states to apply to start or increase eel fisheries with quotas taken away from Maine.
Fishers and associations supported Option 6, which would allow certain glass eel harvest allowances based on stock enhancement programs implemented in the state — things Maine has a history of, including dam improvements and removals aimed at restoring fishery habitats. They also backed Option 10, which requires states to survey their eel populations at various lifecycles to get a better idea of the health of the species.
The addendum proposes other regulations for eels at different stages of their life cycle — yellow and silver.
For the full list of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s proposed options, visit the commission’s website at www.asmfc.org. Not all options are mutually exclusive, and several of these options could be adopted by the board.
The fishers attending Monday’s meeting also questioned the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s conclusions based on data about trends in the eel population.
Mitchell Feigenbaum, principal of Delaware Valley Fish Co., a company that has purchased glass eels from Maine and more mature eels from other eastern states, held a meeting in his role with the American Eel Sustainability Association in advance of Monday’s Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission public comment session.
Feigenbaum said it can’t be disputed that the fishery is depleted, with low eel counts compared with historic levels, but that doesn’t mean the fishery, or its eels, is endangered or overfished.
He cited a 2007 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study that claimed to be “the most comprehensive analysis of the American eel’s rangewide status ever undertaken,” which found that American eel stocks were wide ranging and stable and that the species “is not undergoing a sustained downward trend at a population level.”
There has been increased fishing since 2012, when the price of elvers skyrocketed, but those years also have seen increased efforts to restore rivers, streams and ponds that have allowed eels to build stronger populations in those locations, Feigenbaum argued.
While the eel stock hit a modern low in 1997, the eel population has historically hit peaks and valleys and has been on a slow incline since the late 1990s, Feigenbaum added.
“We have to win [the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] over by showing that this is a sustainable, responsible fishery,” Feigenbaum told the crowd of elver fishers.
Kate Taylor, senior fishery management plan coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission who presided over Monday’s meeting alongside Terry Stockwell of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said she would take the comments from the meeting back to the commission.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held a series of meetings on the addendum from Florida to Maine, including one in Hallowell earlier Monday.
The deadline for public written comment is 11:59 p.m. July 17. Comments may be mailed to Kate Taylor at 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, Virginia, 22201. Comments also may be submitted by fax to 703-842-0741 or email at email@example.com (subject line: American Eel).
Final action on the addendum is expected in August.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.