FRANKLIN, Maine — The 2015 elver fishing season has come to a disappointing end, local fishermen say.
“Horrible,” fisherman Abden Simmons described it. “I don’t think I’ve caught half of what my quota was.”
“Normally we have an eight-week season, but this year we had a four-week season,” Darrell Young, head of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said.
The season actually began March 22, but Young didn’t catch his first elvers until May 3.
Before then the water was just too cold, he said.
“It was a really cold winter,” Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, said. “Cold weather does have a tendency to reduce the fishery and slow things down and make it so the elvers aren’t moving up into the rivers and streams.”
Elvers are juvenile eels that are born in the Sargasso Sea region of the Atlantic Ocean and then migrate to North American freshwater lakes and rivers. Elvers generally are caught at night in tidal rivers and streams by fishermen using funnel-shaped fyke nets or small, hand-dip nets mounted at the end of poles.
A lack of spring rain also hurt elver fishing. When water levels are low, eels swim up the middle of the streams and rivers instead of along the edges, where fishermen can catch them, Young said.
“They’re not a river-specific fish. They go anywhere and everywhere,” Simmons said, adding that if elvers don’t like the conditions in one river, they simply will go up the coast to the next.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said fishermen caught only 4,870 pounds by around Memorial Day, which represents about half the 9,688-pound quota the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission has imposed on Maine. Nichols said the DMR would release final numbers during the first week of June.
“This has been an abnormally poor year,” Keliher said.
Also disappointing to fishermen are the conservation closures and the dates they fell upon this year. During elver season, fishing is allowed from noon Sunday to noon Friday. It is not permitted on the weekends, in order to allow some of the eels to complete their migrations, Nichols said Friday.
This year, by statute, elver season was scheduled to end May 31; but because that day fell on a Sunday, the season actually ended noon Friday, May 29.
Young and Simmons said they believe the state should have extended the season.
Nichols said it would have been impossible to do so because the season length is defined by law.
“It’s going to hurt the State of Maine by us not catching this quota,” Young said.
Prices per pound of elvers ranged throughout the season from under $1,000 to a high of $2,700, according to Young, Simmons and Nichols.
Demand for elvers has increased sharply in the past five years, boosting the value of Maine’s annual elver harvest from about half a million dollars in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. The value of Maine’s statewide harvest dipped to $8.4 million last year, when fishermen on average earned $874 per pound, but prices so far this season have risen back to about $2,000 per pound.
Simmons said the price Thursday night was $2,600 per pound. He only caught two-tenths of a pound, which he described as “horrible,” even though he acknowledged he made $500 for about three hours work.
Young said he caught one-third of a pound Thursday night.
“I made $800. Can’t sneeze at that, I guess,” he said.
However, the 4,818 pounds of quota left uncaught as of May 24 would be valued at $12.5 million, Simmons and Young said.
Young said the state is missing out on tax revenue on this money.
Simmons said others involved in elver processing also are losing money.
Last year, the state-issued quota was 11,749 pounds; fishermen caught 9,688.
If Maine goes over the quota, DMR officials said, it could harm the resource and jeopardize the lucrative fishery with a resulting adverse ruling from the interstate fisheries commission. The commission has expressed concern about the overall population of American eels and has considered whether Maine’s elver fishery should be closed down.
Last season also was cut short because of a cold winter, Nichols said.
Not everything to do with elver season was disappointing, however. Nichols said the department’s implementation of a card system last year to track the volume of elvers caught is working. With the system, the number of pounds caught is recorded when each fisherman sells his or her catch to a licensed dealer.
“We think the card system has been a real success,” Nichols said, adding that it reduced the number of violations related to illegal harvesting last year.
The state and the Passamaquoddy tribe also reached an agreement this season following a dispute over tribal sustenance fishing licenses, which the department feared were being used to circumvent elver fishing regulations, Nichols said.
The DMR, which threatened to ban the use of fyke nets by tribal fishermen, is allowing Passamaquoddy with sustenance fishing licenses to use them. In return, the tribe is tracking landings and sharing that information with the department, Nichols said.
“The commissioner has been and remains committed to dialogue with the tribe on fisheries management issues,” Nichols said.
However, Nichols and Keliher were more optimistic about what transpired than Passamaquoddy Chief Fred Moore.
“It’s being worked out — or at least we’re discussing it,” Moore said Friday.
However, he countered the notion that the DMR is “allowing” tribal fishermen to use fyke nets for sustenance fishing.
“No, that’s not how it works,” he said. “We don’t get permission from the state. … Those are the state’s words, not mine.”
As environmental stewards, the Passamaquoddy are willing to report on the weight of their catches to the state, he said
The state has some “angst” about what the Passamaquoddy will do with elvers caught, Moore said, referring to the state’s assertion the Passamaquoddy might sell elvers illegally.
“Those are some of the things we are working out,” he said.
In general, fishing is what defines Passamaquoddy culture and community, not the disposition of the product, he said.
“We cannot allow newcomer society to define our culture within the values of their economic system,” Moore said. “[But] we’re talking, and that’s a good thing.”
BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.