ALEXANDRIA, Va. – An interstate commission postponed a decision on how to address Maine’s elver fishery on Tuesday, giving parties several months to negotiate a compromise in the face of a “gold rush” for the tiny, translucent eels.
With baby eels fetching up to $2,000 a pound, Maine’s elver fishery was second to only lobster in terms of total economic value last year. But a surge in interest in legal fishing for elvers — coupled with a dramatic increase in poaching in Maine and other states — has focused additional scrutiny on the health of a species that fills a key ecological niche.
Members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission opted to delay a decision on elver management until at least August after discussing the matter for several hours during a meeting in Alexandria, Va.
“This is the preferred outcome,” said Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs at the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a commission member. “Now we are going to come up with an alternative that is more acceptable to the board.”
Maine’s representatives to the 15-state commission had proposed allowing elver fishing to continue largely unabated in Maine and South Carolina, which are the only two states with fisheries for the baby or “glass” eels. Under the proposal, the states would have been required to conduct complete life-cycle surveys of eels, institute real-time reporting of elver sales and ban commercial harvesting of all but the smallest eels.
But commission members concerned about the health of the species countered with a proposal to close the fishery entirely. With the hour growing late and many commission members uncomfortable with either proposal, the group opted to form a special committee to report back in August.
Maine officials said fishermen have harvested roughly 13,700 pounds of elvers since March 22. The season ends May 31. Last year’s haul of roughly 19,000 pounds was worth nearly $40 million, earning many fishermen in excess of $100,000.
Elver prices have in the past been as low as $25 a pound but climbed above $2,000 a pound last year due to strong demand in Asia, where the baby eels are raised in aquaculture pens for later consumption.
But scientific assessments in the U.S. say stocks are shrinking, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether eels should be added to the endangered species list.
Maine issued just over 700 elver licenses this year, although the state has been locked in a jurisdictional fight with the Passamaquoddy Tribe after leaders — claiming tribal sovereignty — issued more than triple the number allotted by the state.
But poaching was a major topic Tuesday, especially among representatives of states where elver fishing is illegal. A New Hampshire representative said his state has made 22 arrests this year while Massachusetts has arrested seven individuals for elver poaching.
“Anyone who has not been taking the poaching issue seriously, had they been here today, they would have realized that we came this close to losing this [industry] because of poaching,” Mitchell Feigenbaum, an exporter of Maine elvers who represents Pennsylvania on the commission, said while holding his fingers an inch apart.
Darrell Young, an elver fisherman from Eastbrook who founded the Maine Elver Fisherman Association, said he was pleased with the postponement because it should allow more fishermen to participate in the August meeting.
But Passamaquoddy member Michael-Corey Hinton, a Washington-based attorney representing the tribe at Tuesday’s meeting, described the postponement as “not acceptable.” The Passamaquoddy Tribe sets quotas on its fishermen and supports imposing such limits throughout the fishery.
“Regulate the amount of eels coming out of the river rather than the number of fishermen in the river,” Hinton said.
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