One of the state’s most lucrative and threatened marine fisheries – elvers – rebounded this year, prompting the Maine Department of Marine Resources to declare the just-completed eight-week season a success.
Meanwhile, state officials said Tuesday they are considering expanding a new swipe card system – a mechanism used to track an individual elver fisherman’s catch – to other fisheries.
They said the swipe card and a new quota system helped prevent poaching and are management tools they hope will discourage federal regulators from imposing more stringent quotas or shutting the fishery down.
A public hearing on the future of elver fishing in Maine will be hosted June 30 in Hallowell by members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The elver fishing season ended May 31.
“This season exceeded my expectations in terms of the performance of the new swipe card system and the outcome of the individual quota system,” Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in statement Tuesday. “One of the main challenges for the department last season, as the value exceeded $2,000 per pound, was poaching.”
Keliher said there were 219 violations in 2013 related to fishing for elvers without a license. The commissioner, citing figures provided by the Maine Marine Patrol, said only 15 violations for poaching were issued in 2014.
“This drastic decline in violations is strong testament to the success of the new system,” Keliher added.
Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the department, said that Maine harvesters landed about 86 percent of the total overall quota of 11,163 pounds of elvers in 2014.
Nichols said the cold weather Maine experienced this spring slowed the migration of elvers. It also discouraged fishermen. During the season’s first week only 33 of 950 licensed harvesters fished for elvers. Only 371 of the 887 active harvesters reached their quotas this year.
Price may also have been a factor in the smaller harvest this year.
The price for a pound of elvers dropped from its peak of more than $2,000 a pound in 2013 to between $600 and $1,000 per pound this season, according to The Associated Press.
Nevertheless, Nichols said, “we still see this season as a success.”
The baby eels are caught in rivers and sold overseas to aquaculture companies in Asia that raise them to maturity and sell them for food. The state’s elver fishermen’s catch topped 18,000 pounds and $32 million in value for each of the past two years, spurring concerns from state and federal regulators about overfishing, the AP reported.
A spokesman for the elver fishing industry said a saturated Asian market may have driven prices for the baby eels down this year. Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, said the state’s new quota system pushed some harvesters out of state to fish for elvers in the Caribbean and the African nation of Mozambique – places that do not enforce quotas.
Pierce said a few fishermen who left Maine were able to sell their catch in countries such as Japan, effectively flooding the market and driving demand down.
“The smart guys went to places like Puerto Rico and Jamaica and made a lot of money,” he said.
Maine and South Carolina are the only states that allow commercial eel harvesting.
Pierce said the Asian farms that raise baby eels had more than enough stock. He said eels caught in the United States are preferred because they have a lower mortality rate than those caught in places such as Mozambique.
“For us, summer (hot) dogs are a summer staple, but over there it’s eel dogs,” Pierce said.
Next year’s quota has not been determined and will need to be approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The commission has presented quota options that range from 3,000 pounds to 11,749 pounds. It is scheduled to vote on the limit in August.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: