AUGUSTA — Nearly 100 fishermen turned out for a public hearing Tuesday to tell representatives of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission not to make changes to the management of the American eel fishery in Maine.
The fishermen disputed the commission’s most recent stock assessments, which show that, along the Atlantic, eel populations have been declining for decades and are severely depleted, said Kate Taylor, the commission’s senior fishery management plan coordinator.
A board of about 50 representatives from the Atlantic states will meet May 21 in Alexandria, Va., to discuss a range of management measures to address declines, from closure of certain fisheries to quotas on numbers of eels harvested. The group will determine the fate of the fishery for all eels, covering glass – including elvers. yellow and silver eels – and the mature adults of the species, in the waters of the 15 states from Maine to Florida.
The decision expected in May or early June will take effect for the 2014 season.
First adopted in 1999, the commission’s management plan remained unchanged after its last assessment, in 2008, Taylor said, and that could happen again.
Fishermen said that eel populations are flourishing in Maine waters so additional management measures aren’t needed. Some conceded that recreational fishing for eels could be reduced without any noticeable impact on tourism, but they said commercial fisheries should be untouched.
One of several options considered was quotas that could reduce harvesting by 25 to 50 percent. Resistance to quotas, and the more extreme measures of closing the fishery or reducing the 54-day season, was overwhelming.
Fishermen disputed the commission’s estimates of population numbers and trends, and urged that further scientific study and landings reports be included before changes are incorporated in a new management plan.
They said their experience does not bear out the commission’s analysis of the fishery, particularly for elvers.
“It’s thriving,” said Billy Milliken, a fishermen from Jonesport. “If you take away our jobs, just make sure there’s a reason for it.”
“My God, please don’t take this fishery away from us; it’s all I have,” said Julie Keene of Trescott Township, who told officials she had fished through the night and driven to Augusta to let the commission know that, for many fishermen, the profitable elver harvest is essential to their financial well-being and helps balance out the economic and physical hardships of other fisheries.
The American eel, at all life stages, is considered a stock for which there is limited scientific and historical data.
Taylor acknowledged considerable uncertainty in the stock evaluations from which the commission is drawing information for the management ruling that will cover the Gulf of Maine and other coastal areas. The amount and quality of scientific information on the American eel is “data-poor,” she said.
Until the last 30 to 40 years, very little data on baby eels, known as elvers, was tracked, Taylor said.
But in the last decade, as eel populations in Europe and Asia have been decimated by pollution, parasites and overfishing, prices have skyrocketed, reaching an all-time high of $2,000 a pound in Maine during the 2012 season.
Among young eels, Taylor said, numbers over a period of years show ups and downs, but no verifiable decline.
Jeffrey Pierce, interim executive director of the new Maine Elver Fishing Association, said the commission should not try to create a one-size-fits-all management plan for the Atlantic coast.
“State flexibility must be part of the plan,” he said, pointing out that the number of elver licenses in Maine has dropped from a high of 3,000 to fewer than 800 this year.
Such measures, along with enforcement of new criminal penalties for elver-license violations and illegal fishing have produced a stable, and even increasing, population, which has been on the rise since 2006, he said.
“Elver numbers (in Maine) are stronger than ever,” Pierce said.