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

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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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Federal regulators have been pushing new regulations for eels along the Eastern Seaboard. Maine and South Carolina have the only two commercial elver fisheries, but Maine’s annual harvest is much larger.

Members of the industry are concerned that the decreased catch limit could exacerbate tensions with the Passamaquoddys should the tribe issue more licenses than the state in 2014.

Patricia Bryant, an elver dealer and licensed harvester in Nobleboro, said she anticipates “a real problem” with the tribe next year.

Jeff Nichols, a spokesman with the Department of Marine Resources, said the state has no plans to reduce the number of state-issued licenses in 2014 unless there is a legislative mandate to do so. Instead, the state is poised to closely monitor the catch through a new reporting system that would require fishermen to carry state-issued swipe cards.

When a fisherman brings his or her catch to an elver dealer, the dealer would swipe the card, assigning the harvested pounds to that fisherman’s license number and recording the catch in the department’s landings database.

If approved, the card system would be a significant change for an industry that until this year was primarily a cash business. Cash transactions were prohibited in 2013 as regulators attempted to tackle increased incidents of poaching.

Bryant said that licensed dealers would sometimes take poached eels at a lower price but sell them at the market rate. Dealers were able to do that because they could manually assign the illegal catch to a legally licensed fisherman. That will be more difficult if the card system is implemented.

The swipe card system is a rule change proposed by the agency and subject to a public hearing. The first hearing will be held Nov. 18 at the American Legion in Yarmouth. The deadline for written public comment is Dec. 2.

Pierce, with the elver association, said the system may help regulators crack down on poaching, a problem for an industry where the financial incentive for illegal activity is high.

As for the secret fraud and tax crackdown launched by the state, Pierce said most of the association’s 197 members accept it.

“Some of them were insulted that our industry was being singled out,” Pierce said. “But the overall consensus, I think, was, ‘Go for it, we know how to file our taxes.’”

Bryant told the Press Herald recently that “the Elver Project” – the name given to the initiative by state officials – could ensnare fishermen fishing legally and accurately reporting their income.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Access Act, the project involves comparing elver license holders in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 with welfare benefit eligibility and tax data over the same period.

With some elver dealers crediting poached eels to legal fishermen, Bryan said, some fishermen could be wrongfully accused by Maine Revenue Services of committing tax or welfare fraud because part of their reported catch had actually been made by someone else.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

Twitter: @stevemistler

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