NEWPORT, Maine — David Whitten has been catching adult eels since he was a boy growing up in Palmyra.
Whitten, 66, has had an eel weir in the East Branch of the Sebasticook River for 20 years, one of hundreds that he says used to exist in rivers throughout Maine.
Whitten’s weir, located off a side street in downtown Newport, is the last one in the state. As a concession to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has said that the population of American eels is depleted, the state last winter banned fishing for silver eels, the adult life stage of the species.
Whitten and his son, Theodore “T.J.” Whitten, are the only exceptions to the ban. This year they were granted a special license to harvest silver eels for research purposes only, not for food, and so have been able to continue catching and selling silver eels. For 2014, they are limited to catching only 450 silver eels between mid-July and mid-September, and none the rest of the year.
Even though the father-and-son team can keep using their weir, David Whitten is not happy about the situation. During a visit Wednesday to his fishing site, he said weir fishermen basically have been sacrificed for the benefit of Maine’s elver fishermen, who this past spring caught a statewide total of approximately 9,500 pounds of the baby American eels.
Whitten said that the going rate for research eels, which are fitted with sensors and used in dam passage studies that power companies are required to conduct on a regular basis, is about $6 per pound, about $2 more per pound than what food wholesalers are currently paying. Elver fishermen have said they were paid around $500 per pound this past spring for their catch but, according to Whitten, it takes thousands of elvers to add up to one pound. One adult eel, he said, can weigh two pounds or more.
The impact on the resource of fishing for hundreds of adult eels, instead of millions of baby eels, Whitten said, is much less.
“If they were sensible, they’d be issuing weir permits and closing down the elver fishery,” Whitten said, leaning on the hood of his pickup truck.
But baby eels are worth much, much more to the state economy than their older counterparts. Maine’s combined annual harvest of yellow eels — an intermediate, adolescent stage — and silver eels netted a statewide total of $14,300 worth of eels in 2013. The value of Maine’s statewide elver harvest in 2013, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources, was nearly $33 million.
Maine continues to allow licensed commercial fishermen to use small traps to catch yellow eels and is enforcing the interstate commission’s yellow eel minimum size limit, adopted in 2013, of nine inches.
Eels are born at sea and migrate each spring to shore, where they swim upstream in freshwater lakes and rivers to live out most of their adult lives. They return to sea late in their lifespans to spawn and then die as their newly born young swim toward land to repeat the cycle.
The economic impact of the elver fishery, which employs approximately 950 licensed fishermen statewide, is a major reason why Maine officials have sought to keep it going despite objections from other states. Fishing for adolescent and adult eels is allowed in other states along the East Coast but Maine — save for a handful of fishermen in South Carolina — is the only state that allows elver fishing.
Elver fishing has been big business in Maine in recent years, rising in value to become the second most valuable fishery in Maine after lobster. In 2012 and again in 2013, after a sharp rise in demand in the Asian seafood market caused prices to skyrocket, elver fishermen in Maine earned a statewide average of more than $1,800 per pound for the baby eels. Prior to 2011, the average statewide price fishermen got had never been higher than $350 per pound.
On Wednesday, the Whittens found 10 adult eels caught in their large funnel-shaped weir — not a lot but “better than nothing,” as David Whitten put it. Years ago, he said, he once caught a 10-pound eel and just last fall, when there were no limits on silver eels, he and his son caught 150 of them in a single rainy night. He said they check the weir by 8 a.m. every morning.
Whitten said how many eels he and his son catch each day is dependent on the weather, so he’s not sure what an average or typical catch might be. Eels tend to be more active at night and during heavy rainfalls, he said. When it rains hard, catching 100 eels in one night is not that unusual.
At other times, when locks that control water levels on Sebasticook Lake are open, the river floods and submerges his gear, making it impossible to access until the water recedes, he said. The gates have been open and his gear inaccessible a lot this summer. With Wednesday’s catch, he and his son have caught only 35 eels this year — a total that could multiply overnight if the gates are closed and rain comes pouring down.
The elder Whitten said he used to operate seven weirs in the Newport area. Next year, he might let his son operate the last remaining one and keep the revenue it generates. He said he’s tired of fishery officials placing restrictions on eel harvests when they just don’t have enough data to justify the tighter limits.
“I personally don’t believe there is any shortage of eels,” he said. “I’m just getting too old to fight them anymore. Or too civilized, I guess.”
In the meantime, state fishery officials continue to discuss with the interstate fisheries commission how to maintain Maine’s lucrative elver fishery and ensure the sustainability of the species at the same time.
The commission’s eel board is expected to meet in Connecticut in late October to vote on proposed measures such as further limits on elver and yellow eel harvests and a license limit and seasonal closure for the silver eel fishery in the Delaware River in New York. Elver harvest allowances for aquaculture purposes and as credit for habitat restoration programs also are being considered.
Maine Department of Marine Resources representatives say Maine deserves credit for eel conservation measures such as capping the number of elver licenses before the interstate commission sought to impose one. They also maintain that, because there is such a naturally high mortality rate for elvers, the impact of the state’s elver fishery does not have a major impact on how many eels live long enough to reproduce.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of DMR, said Wednesday that because New York continues to allow silver eels to be harvested for resale in food markets, even as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission considers even tighter eel fishing restrictions, Maine plans to relax its silver eel ban, if only slightly.
He said the state plans to grandfather three silver eel licenses the state has issued in recent years, including the Whittens’ license, and to let them resume harvesting silver eels for food wholesalers. The impact on the eel population of easing this restriction, he said, is expected to be negligible.
“We’re not talking about a big population here,” Keliher said.