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

(Continued from page 2)

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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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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

In mid-April, a Rockland man was charged with illegal possession of more than $20,000 worth of the eels. An investigation by marine patrol officers led to apprehension of the suspect near the Kennebunk exit of Interstate 95.

In Falmouth early Thursday, Hale issued summonses to five people on the Presumpscot; all identified themselves as Passamaquoddy Indians with tribal permits. But their licenses were not valid under state law, Hale said, and all face $2,000 fines if found guilty in District Court.

In contrast, most legally licensed elver fishermen can net $600 to $1,400 for five days' work, even in slow periods of the season. Elver fishing is prohibited by law for 24 hours starting at noon on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a break specifically designed to give the eels a fighting chance.

That is exactly what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is trying to accomplish, too, with a proposal that includes a range of management options to reduce the decline in eel populations. Marine biologists believe the decline might be cyclic, but is aggravated in the western Atlantic by overfishing, lost habitat, changes in the ocean food web and increased predation. Eel deaths historically have been linked to turbines and dams, and more recently to environmental changes, including warmer water temperatures and acidification, toxins, contaminants and disease, according to the commission.

Increased management could entail greater state responsibility for monitoring and policing the fishery -- tasks already putting a burden on marine fisheries personnel. And the commission could opt to place greater restrictions on license limits or even shut down the fishery until stocks rebound.

But, for now, the eel -- at every stage of its life cycle -- is desired for harvest. It is considered a delicacy in its immature state, and in much of Europe -- where parasites and ocean changes have afflicted the fishery for more than 30 years -- as well as in China and Japan, the American eel represents hope of recovery for fisheries in decline.


For Mainers, it represents a livelihood that is hard to resist, whether licensed or illegal.

"We're the only game in town; that drove the price up," Hale explained. And the economy is bad, he acknowledged, admitting to a degree of empathy for people tempted to cross the line into prohibited fishing. "Everybody," he said, "needs money."

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

The money is very good -- a definite draw that will induce him to renew his license again next year, he said. (Licenses renew automatically if fishermen reapply.)

The season -- and fishermen's moods -- improve as the weather warms, making the tedious hours and hours of dip-netting from rocks and shoreline in the dead of night more tolerable.

"It's just getting good now for me," McVane said, stopping last week in Falmouth on the warmest night of the season so far to talk about his newly acquired fishing skills and catch. "It's very interesting," he said of elver fishing. "Lobstering is a lot harder; there's a lot more gear involved."

But the main lure, he admitted, is the fishery's profitability.

"Making $600 to $1,400 a week -- you can't do that anywhere else right now," he said. That's especially attractive, particularly considering that the upfront costs run to about $300 to $400 for dip netters, and perhaps $2,000 to $2,500 for those using the large, draped fyke nets that can capture exponentially more elvers.

Beyond the license costs, McVane invested a few hundred dollars on poles, netting, a lantern, waders, a head lamp and the other few essentials needed for dip netting. He tries different spots, sometimes 20 miles away from a river he fished the night before. As in all fishing, results vary dramatically from day to day, river to stream. One recent evening, he captured a quarter pound; the next, 1¼ pounds. That's potentially more than $2,000 for two nights' work.

"I've never really worked a 9 to 5 job," said McVane, who's found elver fishing a good fit. "You work hard and get paid. It's real nice ... calm, the moon (is) out. ... Everyone I talk to is friendly."

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


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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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