April 4, 2013

U.S. plans to stay out of dispute over elvers

It's unlikely to suspend the state's harvest over excess licensing, an official says.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A top federal fisheries official says the government has no plan to intervene in a dispute between Maine and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over the harvesting of elvers, even though the tribe has issued so many permits that it put Maine in violation of federal standards.

click image to enlarge

In this March 17, 2013 file photo, Eel fisherman Mike Murphy, of Cundy's Harbor, inspects a 30-foot-long fyke net in Falmouth. A top federal fisheries official says the government has no plan to intervene in a dispute between Maine and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over the harvesting of elvers, even though the tribe has issued so many permits that it put Maine in violation of federal standards.


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has been monitoring events in Maine and is working with the state to ensure that it remains in compliance with federal elver management plans, said Kate Taylor, senior fisheries management plan coordinator for the commission.

Taylor said she knows of only one instance in which the U.S. commerce secretary, who oversees the commission, has shut down a commercial fishery because it didn't meet the terms of a plan.

"It is not something that happens often," Taylor said. "The commission and member states do try to work together so that it does not get to that point."

On Thursday, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Passamaquoddy Tribe said they were still working to resolve a conflict between the state's management authority and the tribe, which says it has sovereignty over harvesting by its members.

"The process is ongoing," said Fred Moore, the tribe's spokesman for fisheries matters. "The situation is delicate and has to be handled delicately. There are no new developments, but we are working very hard to find a peaceful solution."

Moore said tribal leaders and Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher spoke by telephone, and the two sides expect to meet again soon.

At stake is access to the baby eels that fetched as much as $2,600 a pound in 2012, when demand in the Far East boosted prices to record levels. That demand drove the value of last year's catch to $40 million, second only to lobster as Maine's most valuable fishery.

Under the federal management plan, Maine is limited to 744 licenses and 1,242 pieces of gear. State law gives the Passamaquoddies the right to issue 200 licenses, but the tribe has refused to observe the limit, saying it has sold 525 licenses.

That number, on top of the approximately 400 licenses issued by the Department of Marine Resources this year, puts Maine over the federal limit, which prompted Keliher to warn that the federal fisheries commission could shut down the elver harvest.

State officials and law enforcement officers tried to check tribal members' licenses in Washington County on Sunday, and some gear was confiscated in a tense situation.

"The situation has calmed down significantly," said Moore, the Passamaquoddy fisheries spokesman. He said the Department of Marine Resources continues to patrol the fishery and enforce existing law, and the Passamaquoddies continue to fish.

"There is no question that a conflict exists," he said.

How that conflict is resolved is critical because what happens in Maine in 2013 could factor into the way eels are managed in the future all along the East Coast.

Officials from the 15 Atlantic commission states will meet near Washington, D.C., in May to decide whether to change the commercial fishery for elvers.

The commission will hold a public hearing April 30 in Augusta with the Department of Marine Resources as part of the planning process.

Among the options being considered are maintaining the status quo, imposing catch quotas, and shutting down the fishery.

A stock assessment conducted for the commission in May determined that eel populations were depleted, likely due to a combination of factors, including habitat loss, mortality from dam turbines and overfishing.

Although fishing pressure has fallen, the assessment said, the total catch may still be too high, given the other factors.

"Fishing on all life stages of eels, particularly young-of-the-year and in-river silver eels migrating to the spawning grounds, could be particularly detrimental to the stock, especially if other sources of mortality (i.e., turbine mortality, changing oceanographic conditions) cannot be readily controlled," the assessment reads. "Management efforts to reduce mortality on American eels in the U.S. are warranted."

(Continued on page 2)

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