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

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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

From his patrol truck, outfitted with a computer, he stayed in touch with his fellow officers by cellphone, exchanging information about particular sites that tend to be popular. He spends plenty of time on foot, too, combing the woods and carrying out one big part of his job: sneaking up on people and, he acknowledged, sometimes scaring them half to death with the surprise of having a law enforcement officer emerge from the trees.

It's just one technique that Hale and other officers use to flush out offenders at night. They also check license plates on cars clustered near bridges or dams at access points where salt and fresh water mix, peer into culverts, keep an eye on white panel trucks that might host illegal dealers and, in general, watch for telltale signs of fishing: thick rubber gloves left behind, stuck into a rock pile along a shore; a piece of PVC pipe with a butterfly net attached to one end; and even littler evidence -- bottles, cans and food wrappers.

The marine patrol covers the ground and the water, safeguarding all of the state's fisheries and trying to take poachers out of the equation. Theirs is hard -- but, Hale admitted, fun -- enforcement work, often involving encounters with people under the cover of darkness. It helps to have a knack for keeping things nonconfrontational.

Occasionally, officers uncover illegal fishing and issue summonses for violations, which, as of last week, carry heavier penalties than ever before. The Legislature approved an emergency measure that made illegal possession and sale of elvers criminal, rather than civil, offenses, with mandatory fines of $2,000, discretionary seizure of gear and the potential for jail time for repeat offenders.

The tougher penalties extend to illegal purchases of elvers by dealers, too. Once largely a cash transaction, the sales of elver, under state law, now requires dealers to handle all business by check and to confirm legal sales and identities of harvesters through licenses and photo identifications.

TAKING RISKS FOR BIG MONEY

According to the Department of Marine Resources, the elver fishery is the state's second-largest, behind lobsters, which account for 65 percent of Maine's fishery sales. In 2012, more than 19,000 pounds of the tiny eels were harvested, bringing in nearly $38 million. That's roughly a 10th of the value of lobsters, but still a lot of money. At the stage of growth the young migrating eels have achieved by the time they become a precious commodity, it takes 3,000 to 4,000 to produce a pound.

These young American eels are sought mainly for export to hatcheries in Asia and Europe, where overfishing, habitat loss, disease, natural disasters and industrial accidents have decimated the fishery. They have become so valuable, in fact, that poaching of the resource has been compared by some state legislators to the dangers of panning during the 19th century Gold Rush in California, and the black market of 1920s bootleggers during the rum-running era of Prohibition.

It's not entirely an exaggeration. Already this year in Maine, tighter enforcement of the elver fishery has resulted in the largest seizure of illegally possessed elvers on record. Just two weeks into the season -- which runs from March 22 through May 31 -- marine patrol officers seized 41 pounds of elvers, valued at $80,000 to $100,000, from a New Hampshire man who was allegedly intending to sell the eels in Maine without a license, officials reported.

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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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