BELFAST, Maine — The smelts were just a red herring.
That was the determination of Judge Susan Sparaco Tuesday afternoon in Belfast District Court, after overseeing the criminal trial of two Hancock County fishermen who were charged with fishing for elvers without a license. The two men said they’d been fishing for smelts with their finely-meshed dip nets one night this April in the Goose River in Belfast, but Sparaco didn’t buy it.
“The story just does not stand up in my mind,” she said before finding the men guilty of all charges. “It really defies credibility that they would travel so far to go to a river not known for smelting.”
Ralph E. Fowler, Jr., 41, of Franklin, and Gregory A. Trundy, 49, of Hancock, may be the first in the state to face a criminal trial for charges related to fishing for the tiny, lucrative glass eels. Fishing for elvers without a license became a criminal offense on April 23, the same day that Matthew Talbot and Wesley Dean of the Maine Marine Patrol spotted Fowler and Trundy fishing with headlamps and dip nets in the Belfast river.
Sparaco sentenced the men to pay fines of $4,250 each but did not sentence them to any jail time. The class D crime of elver fishing without a license carries a mandatory $2,000 fine. Additionally, they were charged with fishing for elvers during a closed period, which also carries a mandatory $2,000 fine and elver fishing while standing in the water, for which they were fined $250 each.
Defense attorney Ferdinand Slater of Ellsworth said that his clients will appeal their convictions.
“They were fishing for smelts, not elvers,” he said after the trial concluded. “The evidence, in my opinion, doesn’t support a conviction of beyond reasonable doubt of fishing for elvers.”
Elvers, or juvenile American eels, recently have surged in value from roughly $100 per pound in 2009 to nearly $2,000 per pound in 2012. The prices generally remained above $1,500 per pound this spring, and have been tempting for many people who have no licenses but are willing to risk getting caught while taking part in the lucrative fishery. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has said that for conservation reasons there should be no more than 744 elver licenses issued statewide.
Fowler and Trundy told the court Tuesday that they were unaware of the price of elvers and instead were interested in bringing smelts home to cook for their families. The men, who had gone smelting before, said that they had purchased the dip nets at the Tideway Market in Hancock and then they headed to Belfast to go fishing. That night — a closed night for elver fishing — the men told the court they rinsed out a dirty plastic bucket from the back of their truck to store their catch and headed down to the tidal portion of the river with their nets.
“I didn’t need a license for smelting,” Fowler told the court while on the witness stand.
But Talbot and Dean, who were surveilling the river that evening, said that men’s behavior did not appear to be in line with smelt fishing. From the stakeout place a short distance away, Talbot told the judge he saw two men filling a bucket with water, passing a long-handled dip net through the water with shallow, sweeping motions and then emptying the net into the bucket. At one point, one of the men peered into the net, Talbot said, as if he was trying to see what he had caught.
“Smelts are larger. You would be able to see them,” he said. “People dip for elvers or set nets for them every year on Goose River. I’ve never seen anyone fishing for smelts there.”
The two marine patrollers drove and walked to the other side of the river to quietly confront the two fishermen. Talbot said he believed one of the men might have spotted him when he went up the bank to answer a cell phone call.
Talbot and Dean identified themselves and asked to see the bucket and the dip nets, but found that all were empty except for some sand fleas. They did not see the fishermen empty the bucket, but Talbot said that the nets were of finer mesh than smelt fishermen usually use.
“Both subjects denied harvesting elvers,” Dean said. “My impression is that they had a story and they were sticking to it.”
Fowler and Trundy told the court that they were uninterested in elvers, that they hadn’t dumped out the buckets and that they had caught smelts on the Belfast river a couple of nights before.
Eric Walker, Deputy District Attorney for Waldo County, said that the marine patrollers were more reliable witnesses than the two fishermen.
“I think both of these defendants have gone a long way to minimize what they were doing,” he said.
But Slater said that his clients were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The officers wanted to see elver fishing and that’s what they saw,” he said.
After the trial concluded, Walker said he expects the state will be seeing a lot more elver-related trials in coming months because of the mandatory fines.
“What incentive does anyone have to not go to trial?” he asked.