PORTLAND — State officials are calling last week’s seizure of $61,000 worth of baby eels the largest case of illegal eel possession ever in Maine.
Phillip Parker, 41, of Candia, N.H., was cited for possession of 41 pounds of baby eels, known as elvers, without having a Maine fishing license, officials said Monday.
With fishermen getting close to $2,000 a pound for their catch, the case shows the high stakes in the fishery.
Legislators are considering emergency legislation that would make illegal elver possession a criminal offense, rather than a civil violation, with mandatory $2,000 fines. Stricter penalties are needed to deter illegal activity, said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.
“The incredible amount of money in this fishery warrants a more stringent penalty because fines often don’t amount to (the value of) one pound of elvers,” he said.
For 10 weeks each spring, fishermen line Maine’s coastal rivers and catch tiny eels — translucent creatures that are 2 to 4 inches long — as they swim upriver. Most of the catch is shipped to eel farms in Asia, where eels are grown to market size before being sold to restaurants and retailers.
Illegal fishing wasn’t a problem when fishermen weren’t making so much money. A decade ago, eel prices fell below $30 a pound, making them barely worth catching. In 2001, the total catch was valued at a meager $40,000.
But a worldwide shortage last year caused prices to soar to as high as $2,600 a pound — and illegal fishing soared as well. In all, Marine Patrol officers issued 300 summonses and 98 warnings for elver violations, mostly for fishing without a license.
People started getting in trouble with eels even before this year’s season began. In mid-March, three Maine men were charged with illegal elver fishing in New Jersey, which has no elver-fishing season. Officers seized 9 pounds of eels, potentially worth about $20,000.
With Maine’s 2013 season a little over two weeks old, about 20 summonses and warnings have been handed out, said Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot. Last year there were many violations, due in part to the large numbers of eels swimming upriver — drawing large numbers of poachers — because of the warm spring.
“I suspect illegal activity will pick up this year if we ever get warmer weather,” Talbot said.
Parker was issued a summons in Newport. Authorities think he brought the eels into Maine from another state and planned to sell them to an eel dealer, said Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols.
The Marine Patrol sold the seized elvers for $61,000, Nichols said. Officers also seized Parker’s pickup truck, with a U-Haul trailer and equipment for storing and transporting live elvers.
Parker is scheduled to appear in court May 29. He could not be reached for comment Monday, and no phone number was listed in his name in Candia.
Maine legislators are expected to pass a bill this week to strengthen elver regulations. Besides criminalizing illegal fishing and mandating $2,000 fines, it would require that eel dealers pay fishermen with checks rather than cash, and that fishermen provide photo IDs when selling their catch.
The fishermen support the proposed legislation, said Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association. “The illegal fishermen are giving the rest of the fishermen a bad name,” he said.
The industry will also welcome the measure requiring payments by check, he said. So much money changed hands last year that some banks ran short of cash, he said, and dealers had to give banks advance warning of how much money they needed in the coming week to ensure there was ample supply.
Prices were so high and the catch was so strong that eel dealers last year sometimes carried hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash when they set up buying stations.
“Some of these guys have $600,000 to $800,000 in their trucks when they’re out buying eels at night,” Pierce said. “There are some safety issues involved.”