ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has agreed to allow Maine to restrict its annual elver harvest with a statewide quota, rather than by a cap on the number of licenses that can be issued throughout the state.
The decision on Thursday by the interstate commission, which regulates fisheries in state marine waters, allows Maine Department of Marine Resources to continue ironing out details of a tentative agreement it has reached with the Passamaquoddy Tribe about the juvenile American eel fishery.
Under the agreement, which would resolve a long-running dispute between the department and the tribe, DMR would not object to the tribe issuing as many dip-net licenses to its members as it wants but the tribe would be limited to a 1,650-pound catch total for the 2014 season and would require its members to use state-issued swipe cards, which will track daily landings statewide, whenever they sell their elvers to dealers.
DMR plans to impose individual catch quotas on fishermen that are based on each fisherman’s catch history over the past three years, which the department has said should significantly inhibit illegal poaching. Passamaquoddys will not have individual quotas.
According to a press release issued Friday by the commission, Maine will be limited to a statewide harvest of 11,749 pounds for the 10-week elver season, which is scheduled to begin on March 22. The statewide quota represents a 35 percent reduction from the more than 18,000 total pounds caught in Maine last year, when there was no statewide catch limit. The commission had told Maine that, to better protect declining American eel populations, the state had to reduce its 2014 catch total by 25 to 40 percent.
Because of a spike in demand, brought on in part by the 2011 tsunami that wiped out stocks of live eels being cultivated in Japan, the price of elvers has skyrocketed since 2011, making it the second most valuable fishery in Maine behind lobster. The average price elver fishermen earned in 2009 was just less than $100 per pound, but it rose to nearly $900 per pound in 2011 and has been consistently above $1,500 in each of the past two seasons, at times surpassing $2,500.
Prior to this week’s vote, the commission had instructed DMR to limit the number of elver licenses issued statewide to no more than 744, which led to sharp disagreements between DMR and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
The tribe issued more than 200 licenses to its members in 2012, which put Maine over that statewide license limit. The following year, when the Legislature tried to limit Passamaquoddys to 200 licenses, the tribe instead issued 575. In response, the department declared most of the tribal licenses to be invalid.
As many as 50 tribal members who fished with tribal elver licenses considered invalid by DMR subsequently were charged with Class D crimes, officials have said. But most of those charges since have been dismissed by prosecutors in Hancock, Washington and Penobscot counties, where prosecutors have said they don’t believe it is fair to punish fishermen caught up in an intergovernmental dispute.
Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermens Association, said Friday that reduced catch limits are alway painful, the association is “fine” with the new measures being implemented for the 2014 season.
Pierce said not all non-Passamaquoddy fishermen are happy with the plan to implement individual quotas. Some wanted their quotas based on their catch totals over the past two years instead of three, he said, and some wanted only a statewide catch limit but no individual quotas.
But given that some regulators wanted to shut down the elver fishery entirely, getting a 35 percent reduction is acceptable, he said. Plus, he added, regulators are expected to require changes to hydroelectric dams to improve survival rates for reproducing adult eels.
Pierce said elver fishermen hope 2014 will turn out to be a good year, even with the tighter restrictions.
“You never know what you’re going to catch,” he said, explaining that ice, cold weather and heavy snow runoff all can keep springtime elver catches low. “[But] we’re optimistic for the season.”