Greed and gangs attracted to Maine’s lucrative elver fishery

Posted April 08, 2013, at 2:58 p.m.
Marine Patrol officer Brent Chasse checks a fyke net set up to catch elvers in the Union River in Ellsworth.
Marine Patrol officer Brent Chasse checks a fyke net set up to catch elvers in the Union River in Ellsworth.
Solomon Dragon of Orland fishes for elvers with a dip net in Surry.
Solomon Dragon of Orland fishes for elvers with a dip net in Surry.
Elvers in a dip-net, caught in the Union River Bay in Surry on Friday night.
Elvers in a dip-net, caught in the Union River Bay in Surry on Friday night.
A fyke net set up to catch elvers in the Union River in Ellsworth.
A fyke net set up to catch elvers in the Union River in Ellsworth.
Perry Cloak of Trenton has been fishing for elvers for 20 years.  Over the years, the price fluctuated widely from $11 per pound to $2500 per pound last year.
Perry Cloak of Trenton has been fishing for elvers for 20 years. Over the years, the price fluctuated widely from $11 per pound to $2500 per pound last year.

SURRY, Maine — Maine Marine Patrol Officer Brent Chasse succinctly sums up the challenges facing him and his fellow conservation officers during the 10-week elver season, which began in late March and stretches until May 31.

“Money brings greed,” Chasse said before starting an evening patrol of popular elver-fishing spots in Ellsworth, Surry and Orland on Friday night. “There was a time when if you made a couple hundred dollars a night, it was a good night. Now, you might make $100,000 in a night if you get really lucky and know what you’re doing.”

Two years ago, the price of elvers, or glass eels, was about $185 a pound. Last year, the price topped $2,000 a pound, and on Friday night, one optimistic veteran elver fisherman said he expected the price to rise again, perhaps to $3,000 a pound, within a week or so.

With the lure of a potentially huge payday, and the reality that there are fewer than 40 marine patrol officers checking hundreds of fishermen and countless tidal waters across the state each night, some choose to ignore the law and try their luck by fishing illegally.

The state has limited the number of elver fishing licenses it issues in order to comply with management rules imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. That limit is 774 licenses, and recent controversy has revolved around the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s issuance of 575 licenses of their own, which state officials say have put Maine out of compliance with existing regulations.

Even if a poacher is caught, Chasse said that many continue fishing, or indicate that they’ve been fishing illegally for quite some time.

“Quite often there is [an attitude] that [getting caught] is just a cost of doing business for these guys,” Chasse said. “Last year I wrote a guy four different summons, four different violations in one morning. … He had roughly $4,500 in fines, right there. I wrote him the four summons and I said, ‘Is it safe to assume that you’re still ahead in this game?’ He just looked at me and smiled.”

Later that season, Chasse said he caught up with the fisherman again — and more fines were added to his ledger.

“I’m not sure by the end of the season that he was still ahead,” Chasse said.

As marine patrol officers and legal elver fishermen will say, there are plenty of people skulking around in the dark, eager to exploit the resource or those involved in the industry.

Chasse said the marine patrol received word last year that members of MS-13, a notorious street gang that has been targeted by federal and international authorities, was intending to target elver buyers.

Chasse explained that the buyers typically conduct a cash business, and that most of the buying takes place late at night. The fact that some buyers might have as much as $250,000 in cash on hand did not go unnoticed by the international gang, and the marine patrol and elver fishermen took the reports seriously.

On Friday night, elver fishermen in Orland were still talking about the MS-13 reports, and quizzed Chasse, eager to hear if he’d heard any fresh news about a new threat.

Chasse shook his head, but admitted he wouldn’t be surprised if reports began again as the season picked up pace after a cold, slow beginning.

In it for the long haul

While the price explosion of 2012 — often attributed to the Japan tsunami that wiped out aquaculture facilities there — was welcomed by veteran elver fishermen and women, some said they knew that some unwelcome changes would take place in their industry.

“[When prices topped $2,000 a pound my first thought was] holy crap,” said fisherman Solomon Dragon of Orland, who started fishing with his father more than a decade ago, when he was just 15. Elver fishing is still a family affair for the Dragons: On Friday night Solomon was fishing in Surry with his dad and older brother manning dip nets nearby.

“My initial reaction was kind of dread of all the people that were going to see the price in the newspaper and say, ‘Hey, I can go [make] myself some money,’” Dragon said. “And you’ve reported on enough of that to see that greed drives people to be doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Over in Ellsworth, Dottie Davis of Machias tended her fyke net, which she has been doing for the past 13 years.

“We fished for even $11 a pound before,” Davis said. “[But last year] was a gold mine. We were really excited.”

On her best day of fishing in 2012, Davis said, she earned $20,000. But in the beginning, it wasn’t the money that made elver fishing attractive.

“My boyfriend got me into it because he had fished for like 20 years,” Davis said. “[I like] getting out in the night, watching them come upriver.”

Davis has no ill will toward those who are legally licensed to fish for elvers, but has had at least one bad experience with a poacher: At the end of last season, someone cut off the end of her fyke net, stealing an unknown quantity of glass eels that were worth more than $2,000 a pound at the time.

Martin Cassidy of Lubec has been fishing for about 10 years, and said that even a single big haul by a poacher could result in a lot of cash.

Last year, Cassidy went to a local dam and watched as elvers “roped” together and scaled the concrete barrier. It was a scene he’d seen in videos, but had not witnessed before.

Fishing within 150 feet of a dam or a fishway is illegal, but Cassidy said a single poacher could have made a mint that night.

“There was a big pool [of elvers], as big as the hood of my truck, a couple of feet deep [at the bottom of the dam],” Cassidy said. “[Someone with a dip net would have earned] enough to retire, I would guess.”

Working together

On Friday night, Perry Cloak of Trenton stood perched on the side of a stone pier in Surry, methodically working the water below with a long-handled dip net.

The work is grueling, Cloak admitted, and takes a toll on a fisherman’s abdominal muscles.

“[You] blind dip,” Cloak said, explaining that he’d only rarely see the elvers he was hoping to scoop up. “You get in shape after about two weeks, and you can go all night. Eighteen hours.”

Cloak has been fishing for elvers for 20 years, and takes conservation of the eels seriously. He pointed out that closing the fishery for 48 hours each week — from noon Saturday until noon Sunday, and again from noon Tuesday until noon Wednesday — assures that a good number of eels make it upstream. And he said that not allowing fishing in the middle one-third of the river means that many eels can complete their journey each night even when fishermen are present.

Cloak is among the many fishermen who carry business cards from Chasse or other marine patrol officers in their pockets, and who won’t hesitate to call if he suspects illegal activity. On Friday, all the fishermen with whom Chasse interacted were fishing legally. Nearly all of them already had his business card, or that of another officer, in their pockets.

“These [illegal] guys come in, and we don’t need them taking something that we’re doing the right way, the legal way,” Cloak said. “Every one of us [feels that way]. We want our fishery. We take care of it.”

Still, Cloak hears the rumblings from other fishermen, and realizes that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to break the law and take money out of his pocket.

“There’s still a lot of stuff going on. I know of three [fyke net] bags that were cut the other day. There’s a lot of stuff going on that people don’t talk about.”

Not talking about in public, perhaps. But Cloak seemed to indicate that the fishermen were perfectly willing to talk about matters in private — and to do what they thought was necessary to protect their fishery.

“There’s unwritten rules in this business, and you’ve got to go by them. Just like in the lobster business,” Cloak said. “If you don’t go by the unwritten rules, you’ll feel the consequences. Or somebody will.”

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