ELLSWORTH, Maine — As Maine’s 2015 elver season draws near, state officials are looking to adopt a rule that would reduce catch allocations for the state’s four federally-recognized Indian tribes.

Last fall, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reduced the statewide limit for harvesting elvers in Maine from 11,749 pounds to 9,688 pounds. Maine Department of Marine Resources plans to reduce the individual limit for each nontribal license holder in order to comply with the lower statewide quota and to have the tribes determine lower individual limits for their licensed members.

A public hearing on the proposed rule has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9, at Jeff’s Catering on Littlefield Road in Brewer. Maine’s approximate 10-week elver season is expected to begin on March 22.

Department of Marine Resources officials have said the 9,688-pound limit is about the total amount of elvers that were caught in Maine in 2014 by both tribal and nontribal fishermen.

Last year, the Passamaquoddy Tribe was limited to harvesting no more than 1,572 pounds, and the Penobscot Nation was limited to 713 pounds. The Houlton Band of Maliseets was limited to 124 pounds, and the quota for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs was capped at 44 pounds, according to the Department of Marine Resources.

This year, the department is proposing to limit the Passamaquoddys to 1,356 pounds, the Penobscots to 620 pounds, the Maliseets to 107 pounds and the Micmacs to 39 pounds, for a four-tribe total of 2,122 pounds. The remaining 7,566 pounds of the statewide quota is expected to be divided among the 430 or so nontribal licensed fishermen in Maine, with each individual quota determined by that fisherman’s catch history.

The rule also would reaffirm a ban on the use of fyke nets in the St. Croix River and its tributaries. According to Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols, the ban was passed by emergency regulation just before the 2014 season, but state law requires that the ban subsequently be approved through the department’s regular rule-making process.

Attempts Tuesday to contact officials with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which in recent years has had a contentious relationship with the Department of Marine Resources over the elver licensing issue, were unsuccessful.

Voicemail messages left Tuesday for Darrel Young, president of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, and for Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, were not immediately returned.

In the past five years, elver fishing has become one of the major commercial fisheries in Maine as demand for the baby eels has soared in the Far East and as mild winters have boosted the state’s annual harvest. Maine is one of only two states that allow elver fishing, the other being South Carolina, but Maine’s fishery is much bigger than that of the southern state.

Maine fishermen cumulatively caught more than 18,000 pounds of elvers in 2012 and again in 2013, and each year, they earned on average more than $1,800 per pound for their catch, making the fishery worth more than $33 million in each of those two years.

In 2014, prices paid to fishermen declined and, though official figures have not been released by the Department of Marine Resources, they are believed to have averaged less than $1,000 per pound for the season. Still, if fishermen were paid an average of $750 per pound for the statewide haul of 9,688 pounds, the value of the 2014 harvest would be about $7.2 million, making it the fourth most valuable wild-caught species in Maine after lobster, softshell clams and herring.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....