ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine’s annual 10-week spring elver season, which came to an end at noon Friday, could resemble the 2012 season in one important respect: it could result in a total landings volume of juvenile eels close the record amount landed the prior year, according to industry officials.
The overall value of those landings, the final tally of which will not be added up for many months, is expected to be a little lower than the 2012 value, which according to Maine Department of Marine Resources was nearly $38 million. The average price that elver fishermen earned for their catch in 2012 was just below $2,000 per pound, but prices this spring were a little lower. Still, at $1,500-$1,700 per pound, prices remained exceptionally high compared with pre-2011 prices, which for more than a dozen years fluctuated between $25 and $250 per pound.
According to Darrell Young, a Waltham resident and a director with Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, the high price continues to provide a much needed economic boost to people in rural parts of Maine.
“We hated to see it end, like we do every year,” Young said Friday. “There are plenty of eels out there.”
Patrick Keliher, head of DMR, said Friday that around the end of April, the volume of landings appeared to be lower, by about 10-20 percent, than midway through the 2012 season. But as temperatures warmed up in recent weeks, he added, the volume of landings appeared to pick up a little. A record volume of 19,000 pounds of elvers were harvested in Maine last year, more than twice the 2011 volume and the first time since 1998 that Maine fishermen harvested more than 10,000 pounds.
All signs indicate that the 2013 landings total is expected to be relatively high compared to annual landings over the past 20 years.
“It’s really hard to predict right now,” Keliher said of what the 2013 total might be. “We’d still be above the historical average.”
The commissioner said one aspect of the 2013 season that is noticeably different from 2012 is the laws that govern the fishery. The Legislature made penalties more severe this spring in the hopes of keeping illegal poaching efforts to a minimum, he said. Some violations that had been considered civil, punishable by fines that could pass as the cost of doing business, were converted to criminal offenses with more serious, long-term consequences such as jail sentences and the loss of fishing licenses.
The increased penalties seemed to have an effect, he said. The number of citations issued by Marine Patrol this spring for illegal harvesting is noticeably lower than the total for 2012.
“Our enforcement efforts were up this year, but the summonses written were down,” Keliher said.
Keliher added DMR never came to an agreement with the Passamaquoddy Tribe during the season about the maximum number of licenses the tribe can issue to its members, but that he hopes to continue discussions with them in advance of the 2014 season. Representatives of the tribe could not be reached for comment this week.
Keliher said the driving factor in the increase in illegal poaching over the past three years is the dramatically higher prices, which have been caused by increased demand from Asia. Keliher didn’t indicate what kind of price range he had in mind, but said if the price came down further, elvers still could provide decent income for Maine fishermen but not be such a lucrative target for poachers.
Maine had several high-profile cases of illegal poaching this spring, including an unlicensed New Hampshire man allegedly caught with 41 pounds of elvers and an unlicensed Rockland man caught with 11 pounds. Keliher credited Sgt. Rene Cloutier with spearheading several of the cases and seizing approximately $100,000 worth of elvers that were smuggled into Maine from out of state. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states where elver harvesting is allowed, though several states (including Maine) permit fishing for later life stages of the American eel.
“That high price continues to drive the poaching associated with [elver fishing],” the commissioner said. “I’d love to see the price dip to make it a more reasonable level and to remove the greed factor [for poachers].”
Keliher said the increased penalties and enforcement efforts in Maine have been well-received by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which considers the population levels of the American eel to be depleted and has the authority to impose more strict restrictions, including shutting the elver fishery down completely. He said discussions on possible new management requirements are expected to continue through the summer in advance and an ASMFC meeting on the topic in August.
“I still believe we can sustainably harvest elvers in this state in without jeopardizing the overall population of American eels,” Keliher said.
Awesus Mitchell, an Indian Island resident and member of the Penobscot Nation, was one of several fishermen who spent their final night of elver fishing Thursday along the eastern side of the Penobscot River in Brewer. Mitchell, who was new to the fishery this year, said he did OK his rookie season but that he gained more in knowledge than he did in income.
“I had a pretty good year,” he said. “I set my expectations pretty low.”
Mitchell, who is licensed to use one funnel-shaped fyke net, said he started in the Medomak River in Waldoboro but, as the 10-week season progressed, moved it to the Penobscot, closer to where he lives. He tinkered with trying different locations in the stretch of river in Brewer and that, having just finished the season, he is full of ideas for what strategy he might pursue in 2014.
“I’d say I got a good blend of both [education and fun],” Mitchell said. “It almost felt like a college course. I’m definitely excited [for next year].”