April 29, 2013

Elver rush is on in Maine

Competition is fierce for one of the most valuable – and violated – fisheries going right now.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

At just after midnight early Thursday from a bridge over the Presumpscot River in Falmouth, the shoreline seemed to be strung with the soft, cold light of fireflies or the flickering flames of candles, magical in the half-dark, lit by a full moon.

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Henry McVane, 21, of Portland fishes for elvers in Falmouth last week. For McVane, a lobsterman who got one of the 50 new elver licenses through a lottery, the elver fishery opens up a chance to earn good pay during what is an off-season for other fisheries.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Marine patrol officer Tom Hale uses his computer to check license plate numbers as he keeps tabs on fishermen.

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THE LIVES OF BABY EELS

Up and down the coast, as many as 650 people with valid licenses are trying on any given night to scoop elvers from streams, rivers and estuaries in which the tiny, transparent creatures run from late March into July or still later.

Elvers are born in the ocean and migrate to fresh water to grow to adult size. Some elvers may linger in brackish waters, while others move to rivers farther inland to mature. Eels may stay in growing areas from eight to 25 years before migrating back to sea to spawn. They swim up waterways on high and flood tides, moving from saltwater to fresh at night and retreating to the bottom by day in a journey that sometimes covers hundreds of miles over several years.

Eventually, in fall, those making their way back out to sea to spawn will reverse their travel route. Scientists do not thoroughly understand, however, exactly where and under what conditions spawning occurs.

-- By North Cairn

But those lights were actually evidence of men at work. Each marked a spot where an elver fisherman was dip-netting for the baby eels that constitute one of the most valuable -- and violated -- fisheries going right now: elvers.

Competition for elvers is fierce, and so far the season has already produced a flurry of new developments, from the largest illegal-possession case on record and an unusual strain in relations between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over licensing. Even the licensed fishermen have weighed in, with 50 last month forming the first Maine advocacy association for the fishery.

Ticketed violations are down compared with the same period last year -- a fact that might seem surprising, given the fascination with the fishery and battles over licensing. From March 1 to April 19, 2012, 158 summonses were handed out by Maine Marine Patrol officers. During the same period this year, that number dropped to 103.

The reduction is probably the result of a number of factors, said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Greater public and media interest, along with strict enforcement and now criminal penalties, have also likely left some poachers more wary of being noticed. And the elver season in some coastal areas has been slower to start this spring, he said.

The intense interest in the fishery this year is occurring simultaneously with the rising tide of federal attention. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has management jurisdiction over most fisheries in waters shared by states, is gathering public comments in New England and along the East Coast on proposed changes to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American eel. A meeting is set for 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Augusta Armory.

Elvers -- by Maine law, American eels less than 6 inches long -- have waxed and waned in value among the state's fisheries, ranging from the low wholesale price of about $25 a pound just 10 years ago to last year's all-time high of $2,000. Last week they were commanding a wholesale price of between $1,500 and $1,800 from Portland-area dealers.

The fishery also has demanded stricter enforcement from marine patrol officers, who track licenses, possession of the eels, and the method and sites of fishing. They have been a more visible presence among fishermen this season, said Nichols.

The 2013 elver season overall has been tumultuous, marred by poachers and riddled with conflicts over licensing. The Department of Marine Resources and the Passamaquoddy Nation locked horns early on, because the tribe has reserved its sovereignty over licensing tribal members, issuing nearly three times as many licenses as the state allocated to the tribe. The DMR in turn has reasserted its authority in enforcement, refusing to recognize as valid or legal any license numbers higher than the state total.

ENFORCEMENT GETS TOUGHER

That's made the elver season more demanding for marine patrol Officer Tom Hale of Portland, who helps monitor sites in Cumberland County. He scours river banks, stream beds and even culverts for people violating state law by trying to harvest elvers without valid licenses. Shortly after dark last Wednesday night, Hale began a tour of areas in and around Portland that are favored for dip netting.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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It takes 3,000 to 4,000 tiny, translucent elvers to produce a pound, which can be worth $1,500 to $2,000.

2012 Press Herald file photo/Gabe Souza

  


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