November 11, 2013

Changes loom for Maine elver fishery

State regulators are poised to impose catch limits and require swipe-card monitoring of elver sales, while moving ahead with a welfare fraud prevention project aimed at fishermen

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

Maine’s lucrative elver fishery is facing some big changes, including smaller catch quotas and a new swipe-card monitoring system that state officials hope will help manage the resource while reducing the poaching of baby eels that fetched up to $2,000 a pound last season.

click image to enlarge

Jeffrey Pierce of the Maine Elver Fisherman Association stands by a brook near the back of his property in Dresden where he fishes for alewives.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Both changes follow the state’s promise to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last month that it will find ways to reduce the 2014 harvest between 25 percent and 40 percent. In the background is a recently uncovered welfare and tax fraud investigation that specifically targets elver fishermen, many of whom are members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Records obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram show that the investigation is scheduled to conclude at the end of January, about two months before the next season.

State officials have refused to comment on the fraud initiative, which involves three state agencies reviewing catch records and tax filings from 2010 to 2013 to determine whether any elver fishermen who received welfare benefits have failed to report income. It’s unclear what motivated the special investigation or how much money the state is devoting to the initiative.

A spokesman for the Passamaquoddys worried recently that the initiative specifically targeted his tribe, but was generally supportive of the investigation. Representatives for the tribe have not returned calls seeking comment since the Maine Sunday Telegram published the story Nov. 3. State officials have also declined to comment, citing advice from Office of the Attorney General not to discuss an investigative matter.

Tensions between the Passamaquoddys and the state have been simmering since last year, when the tribe cited its sovereign nation status and issued 575 licenses, far more than the 433 that the state certified. The industry is bracing for another clash between the tribe and state officials, who in April sent wardens and police officers to Pembroke to seize fishing nets and equipment from Passamaquoddy fishermen whose licenses weren’t certified with the state.

The conflict abated after the administration of Gov. Paul LePage and tribal leaders agreed to enter negotiations at the end of the 76-day season.

However, a long-term settlement hasn’t been reached and the Passamaquoddys still believe that their plan to manage the elver fishery is sufficient, a signal that tensions could reignite next year over an industry that was worth nearly $40 million in 2012 and $33 million this year.

Fred Moore III, the fisheries coordinator for the tribe, told the Press Herald recently that the Passamaquoddys were still hopeful that the state would adopt elements of their management strategy.

“We believe that our management plan is superior to the (Department of Marine Resources’) and that the state and the elvers would benefit by making our plan part of their plan,” Moore said.

That appears unlikely.

State officials are working with federal regulators to reduce the catch limit amid growing concerns about the sustainability of the fishery because of increased harvesting pressure.

The number of licensed fishermen, some migrating from other, less lucrative pursuits, such as clam digging and harvesting periwinkle snails or seaweed, has soared amid strong demand in Asia for the baby eels. Elver prices skyrocketed after a 2011 tsunami in Japan wiped out eel farms. In the past, elver prices were as low as $25 a pound, but they climbed above $2,000 in 2012.

Some have described the current market as a gold rush, which suggests that the elver boom is temporary. Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, believes it may turn out that way if market prices decrease once Japanese eel farms are rebuilt.

In the interim, federal regulators are worried about the sustainability of the fishery. A stock assessment by Atlantic State Marine Fisheries found that eel populations were depleted “coast-wide.”

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