ELLSWORTH, Maine — For the past couple of years, having an elver fishing license in Maine has been, quite literally, money in the bank.
And with a new reporting program being considered by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, it may even come with its own electronic swipe card in 2014.
The swipe card reporting system would track licensed elver fishermen’s transactions and enter their catch totals into a statewide database. State officials say the system would allow them to keep better track of landings as they occur and make it harder for anyone to sell or buy poached elvers.
The state is looking to implement the system because federal officials are concerned about declining numbers of eels along the East Coast. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, recently decided that as a conservation measure, Maine would have to reduce its annual landings next spring by at least 25 percent from the 2013 total, which DMR estimates to be more than 18,000 pounds.
The prices elver fishermen in Maine have received for their catch have skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in a statewide landings total in 2012 that was worth more than $38 million. The state has tried to limit the number of licensed elver fishermen in Maine to several hundred.
The implementation of the swipe card reporting system could have other implications beyond monitoring Maine’s catch total. It may mean more obstacles for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which has been engaged in a contentious feud with DMR over the tribe’s authority to determine the number of elver licenses it issues to its members. Last year, the tribe issued 575 licenses to its members over the strong objections of the state, which had passed a law limiting the tribe to 200.
All dealers in Maine, which must be licensed by DMR, would be required to use the swipe card system, according to DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols. Nichols declined Tuesday to get into speculative details about how the tribe might be affected, but presumably anyone without a swipe card would be unable to sell elvers to licensed dealers in Maine. That could mean that hundreds of Passamaquoddy fishermen effectively would be shut out of the lucrative elver market.
“The [swipe] cards will come from DMR,” Nichols said. “All valid license holders will be issued a swipe card.”
This past spring, DMR declared all but 200 of the licenses issued by the Passamaquoddys to be invalid. The tribe, which maintains that the best way to protect the elver resource is with an overall catch limit rather than a cap on licenses, later reduced the number of active licenses it had issued by more than 100, but still the tribe and DMR disagreed on what the number should be.
DMR, which itself issued 432 licenses this past spring, said it was concerned that more than 1,000 licenses had been issued statewide, when combined with those handed out by the tribe. ASMFC has set a limit of 744 elver licenses that can be issued in Maine.
Attempts Tuesday and Wednesday to contact Passamaquoddy officials about the proposed swipe card system were unsuccessful.
DMR has scheduled two public hearings on the proposed swipe card rule. One will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18, at the American Legion “Log Cabin” meeting house on Main Street in Yarmouth. The second will be held at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Ellsworth Elementary Middle School on Forest Avenue.
Darrell Young of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association said Wednesday that the swipe card system will be good for the fishery because it will help the state keep better track of landings. And he said that fishermen should be able to survive with a 25 percent reduction in the statewide catch.
“It’s better than a 5,300 pound quota, which is what [ASMFC] was looking at,” Young said. “We’ll be able to live with it.”
Young said poaching still will be an issue because some unscrupulous licensed fishermen will sell poached elvers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, but it will make it harder to sell poached eels. A law passed last year that prohibited cash transactions and required dealers to pay for elvers with checks also has helped to reduce poaching and to improve the ability of state and federal officials to keep track of elver income.
The Portland Press Herald has reported that DMR, Maine Revenue Services and Maine Department of Health and Human Services are cooperating in an investigation of elver fishermen suspected of not reporting their fishing income, but attempts this week to confirm the investigation were unsuccessful.
Nichols declined on Tuesday to verify that such an investigation is underway and John Martins, spokesman for DHHS, said Wednesday in an email that on “the advice of the Maine Attorney General’s office, we have no comment.” An official with Maine Revenue Services did not respond Wednesday to email and voicemail inquiries about it.
As for the mandate to reduce elver landings next spring by 25-40 percent, Nichols said DMR has not devised a plan for how it will be done. He declined to speculate what options the department may consider but said that DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher plans to schedule public meetings with elver fishermen to discuss ideas.
The heightened interest in elver fishing has been spurred by soaring prices fishermen have been getting for their catch — from $10 per pound in 2009 to more than $1,800 per pound in 2012, according to DMR statistics. At times during the annual 10-week season, which runs each year from late March through the end of May, the price sailed above $2,000 per pound.
As a result, the overall value of Maine’s elver fishery is now ranked second in Maine behind the state’s $340 million lobster fishery. Elver fishermen on average earned $1,867 per pound in 2012, when they caught more than 20,000 pounds of the juvenile eels for an overall fishery value of $38.7 million. DMR has yet to determine an average price for the 2013 season, but according to fishermen and dealers prices this past spring consistently hovered around $1,500-$1,700 per pound.
The Japanese tsunami of 2011 wiped out that country’s supply of wild-caught eels being raised to adulthood in captivity, and Maine has benefited by being the primary source of elvers used to supply the Far East seafood market. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that allow elver fishing, but South Carolina’s elver fishery is much smaller than Maine’s. Several states including Maine also have fisheries for adult eels.