Licensed eel fishermen Julie Keene and Jessica Card set up a fyke net on the banks of the Penobscot River in Brewer last year. If preliminary data holds, Maine’s fishery brought in about $21.7 million in 2018. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Maine’s efforts to expand its lucrative baby eel fishery by increasing its annual quota by 20 percent were shot down Wednesday. But the state did secure an extra 200 pounds of yearly landings to help a Thomaston eel farmer build a new aquaculture center.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the interstate body that oversees the American eel fishery, cited the “depleted” state of the stock when it rejected the proposal. Licensed Maine fishermen are currently allowed to harvest 9,688 pounds of baby eels, which are also called glass eels or elvers. Maine sought to increase that annual harvest to 11,749 pounds.

The final vote was 13-5, with each of the 15 member states, as well as the District of Columbia and two federal agencies, getting a say.

During discussion, commissioners cited the difficulty that scientists face when estimating the size of the American eel population, especially baby eels, but noted that scientists generally agreed that the stock is depleted. Eels do not reproduce until they are about 30 years old, at the end of their life cycle, so measuring the impact of harvesting babies won’t be known for decades.

“I’m impressed with the efforts that Maine has gone through to strengthen the reporting and monitoring of the fishery,” said Roy Miller, a Delaware commissioner. “Nonetheless, our only advice from the stock assessment scientists was that this stock remains depleted, and that we don’t know what the effect of harvest of Maine glass eels will have on the rest.”

Last year the Maine catch was valued at $12.1 million. According to preliminary data, Maine elver dealers bought almost 9,200 pounds of elvers during the 2018 season before state officials shut the fishery down out of fear that off-the-book sales would push state landings over the 9,688-pound annual quota. If that data holds, the Maine elver fishery was worth about $21.7 million.

That would put the average price per pound at about $2,400, but Maine officials claim some dealers were paying up to $3,000 a pound.

TOUGHER PENALTIES PLANNED

In a presentation to the commission, Patrick Keliher, head of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the Maine Marine Patrol is still investigating off-book sales. Three dealers have been arrested for paying fishermen in cash for their elvers to circumvent a new electronic reporting system that uses swipe cards to monitor daily landings in the fishery.

The state has issued 12 tickets so far in connection with off-book sales, Keliher said. It’s now focused on identifying all fishermen involved.

The state cited these penalties, as well as the emergency shutdown, as proof of its robust regulatory system and intent to honor the quota limits, but some commissioners worried about the potential impact that illegal trade has on the health of the fishery.

Keliher said his agency plans to propose new legislation that would beef up its regulatory system even more, including a one-strike bill that would allow the agency to permanently revoke an elver fisherman’s license for even one violation of the eel laws. Currently, Maine has a two-strikes standard that is already one of the strictest in any national fishery, Keliher said.

Fishing for baby eels is legal only along a single waterway in South Carolina, the Cooper River, and statewide in Maine.

Most Maine elvers, also known as glass eels, are sold to the Asian market, where they are grown into adults for use in the sushi trade. These elvers were stored at Delaware Valley Fish Co. in Portland. Staff file photo by John Patriquin

While unsuccessful in growing its regular annual quota, Maine was successful in adding an extra 200 pounds of quota for aquaculture.

Most Maine elvers are sold to the Asian market, where they are grown into adults for use in the sushi trade, both abroad and in the U.S. Maine has been looking for a way to keep more of the eels here, especially those sold back to U.S. restaurants, and last year issued a request for proposals for a company willing to grow the elvers caught here into eels.

American Unagi, a startup founded by former Sea Grant researcher Sara Rademaker of Thomaston, answered the call. Rademaker is planning to build an aquaculture center in midcoast Maine where she will grow 360 pounds of elvers – 200 pounds from a special quota and 160 pounds of market-rate elvers – into 120 metric tons of adult eels, or yellow eels, every year. Some of the details about the project are not being disclosed because of proprietary concerns.

Under the plan, which commissioners unanimously approved, fishermen hired by American Unagi will get a special swipe card to track the elver landings destined for the aquaculture center, giving regulators the ability to ensure they don’t exceed the center’s 200-pound quota. The aquaculture quota would be in addition to that fisherman’s already allotted state quota.

On Wednesday, fishery regulators approved a plan by Sara Rademaker of Thomaston, above, to buy and grow 360 pounds of elvers at a startup aquaculture center in Maine. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

COVETED EEL FISHING LICENSES

An eel’s life starts as an egg spawned by an adult in the Sargasso Sea near the Bahamas. Those eel larvae drift along Atlantic Ocean currents and eventually metamorphose into miniature transparent eels. These eels eventually reach the coast and swim upstream into freshwater rivers and streams from the Caribbean to Canada.

For a few brief weeks each spring, fishermen in Maine and South Carolina jockey to catch the valuable baby eels, working mostly at night, crouched over nets on muddy stream banks. After being caught, put in tanks and sold to licensed dealers, the eels are shipped to Asia, where they are raised in captivity and sold as a delicacy.

Although it was once a sleepy fishery, the Maine elver market exploded when foreign stock of the eels dried up, driving up prices and increasing the stakes for fishermen who could earn thousands upon thousands of dollars during the short season. Now a license to legally catch and sell baby eels is coveted. The state granted only 425 elver licenses for the 2018 season.

During a lottery in January, when 11 spots were up for grabs, 3,136 people put their name in the hat at least once; many entrants paid extra fees to enter their names multiple times in the drawing. By selection time, Maine had received more than 8,000 entries, despite a brief weather-related downturn in the market that caused per-pound prices to drop in 2017.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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