The debate over catch limits and quotas for elvers in Maine and other Atlantic states could be renewed next week when a federal commission meets to review recommendations for changes to its proposed management plan for American eels.
The board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet Wednesday in Virginia to decide whether to move ahead on its working group’s recommendations or incorporate details not included in the most recent management plan.
At stake is a fishery that’s worth tens of millions of dollars a year in Maine alone, with baby eels often selling for $2,000 a pound or more.
Among its key recommendations, the working group:
• Voted unanimously against maintaining the status quo across all American eel fisheries. Members did not specify what changes should be made.
• Opposed closing the elver fishery, in part because of its economic importance to Maine and because the stock assessment numbers were skewed by dramatically different counts over a period of 20 years.
• Endorsed the concept of a quota system for harvesting of American eel in all life stages (elver, yellow and silver) but did not specify numbers.
• Supported the possibility of opening elver fisheries in states that do not now have them. A framework of standards to regulate new elver fisheries would have to be created.
• Proposed cutting the bag limit for recreational fisheries in half, to 25 pounds.
Some of the changes – including recreational catch limits – are expected to gain support, commission officials said. But based on past responses, others could be more controversial.
“The committee did decent work,” said Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fisherman’s Association, but the draft proposal leaves many questions and problems. “It’s a mess, to be honest with you.”
Pierce said a quota system would be unworkable, and there are issues over permissible gear.
“A quota system is a nightmare; it’s impossible,” he said. “How do you enforce it?”
He said fishermen will be asked to accept “reasonable reductions” in catch, but they already have seen cuts. He noted the dramatic decrease in the number of elver licenses issued by the state – from 3,000 in 1995 to 757 in 2013. Of this year’s total, 150 were issued to the Passamaquoddy Indians.
A final plan must go through several phases of review and is not expected to be completed before this fall, said Terry Stockwell, a working group member and the director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The dispute over the American eel fishery stems from a conflict between perceived conservation issues and very real economic gains, said Stockwell, a former fisherman from Southport.
In 2012, 19,000 pounds of elvers, sold at nearly $2,000 a pound on average, brought in nearly $38 million – 7 percent of the state’s total fisheries revenue. The elver fishery is now Maine’s second-largest, trailing only lobsters in economic impact.
“These little guys wouldn’t be getting so much attention if they weren’t worth so much,” Stockwell said.
Maine fishermen are likely to be disappointed by slightly lower quotas, he said, but moves to close the fishery appear to have been soundly defeated.
“We wanted the (option of) closure of the fishery off the table,” Stockwell said.
Elver fishermen have made their feelings known on that point. In May, they turned out in force for a meeting in Augusta to argue that the draft proposal was based on flawed counts of eel populations, contained unrealistic restrictions on gear and harvest limits, and was punitive to Maine elver fishermen.
“It’s scary,” said Pierce, of the Maine Elver Fisherman’s Association. “I don’t want food stamps. I want to work, and I like to work hard. But I want to get paid, too.”
Across its range, the American eel has been assessed as “depleted in U.S. waters,” according to the species profile provided by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
“The stock is at near historically low levels due to a combination of historical overfishing, habitat loss, food web alterations, predation, turbine mortality, environmental changes, toxics and contaminants and disease,” the commission wrote in its species report.
In addition, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to have the species listed as endangered or threatened, said Stockwell.
But eel fisheries vary considerably by life stage and from state to state, resulting in complex regulations and uncertain outcomes, commission officials said.
In addition, differences have surfaced in the working group as representatives from different parts of the Atlantic coast have pressed the case for their constituents.
For example, in a debate over whether to maintain the status quo in the elver fisheries, Stockwell said, he moved to keep the fishery going — a clear line in the sand for Maine elver fishermen.
Stockwell’s measure was rejected, and a representative from Massachusetts – which favors much tighter controls and restrictions on fishing for American eels – immediately voted to close the fishery, he said.
That proposal also was defeated.
Each of the main points of contention is addressed by the working group’s recommendations, which can be adopted by the board next week. But any changes to the original proposal would be subject to yet another round of public comment hearings.
Nothing definite has been decided, said Kate Taylor, senior fisheries management plan coordinator for the commission, and the full board can delay action on some or all of the points.
“There are a lot of moving parts here,” said Taylor.
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