ROCKPORT — Last year, Maine fishermen harvested elvers worth more than $11.4 million from the state’s streams and rivers. That made the fishery for the tiny, translucent juvenile eels the fourth most valuable in the state, but it still wasn’t a good year.
A cold, dry spring delayed the migration of elvers from the sea into the rivers where harvesters set their gear. As a result, Maine fishermen landed just 5,259 pounds of the tiny wrigglers, little more than half the 9,688-pound quota allocated the state by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The good news was that those elvers were worth $2,171 per pound to the harvesters fortunate enough to catch some.
When the Maine Elver Fishermen Association gathered for its annual meeting Saturday morning, harvesters received some good news from Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher and former MEFA Executive Director Jeffrey Pierce.
Emergency legislation enacted that morning should give fishermen a better chance to actually fill the quota, and Keliher said he also hoped it would reduce friction over the elver fishery between the state and Maine’s four tribal governments.
Of immediate consequence, the new law extends the elver season, which begins on Tuesday, March 22, from May 31 to June 7 and allows fishing every day of the week. Under the prior law, the fishery was closed on weekends as a conservation measure.
Initially, LD1502 gave Keliher flexibility to set the 48-hour closures before the season to take account of the tides and minimize the impact on the industry. With fishing limited by a fixed quota since 2014, though, the closure became unnecessary.
The legislation also allows licensed fishermen to chose before each season starts what type of gear they will use — fyke nets or dip nets. It does not, however, authorize the use of more gear.
The statute also fixes the number of commercial elver licenses to be issued, and the amount of gear to be used, to fishermen from the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. According to Keliher, negotiations with the Penobscot Nation were under way and he was cautiously optimistic as to their outcome.
“I couldn’t even guess how many licenses the tribe will issue this year,” Keliher told the harvesters.
The meeting also saw the MEFA membership vote to merge their organization with the Pennsylvania-based American Eel Sustainability Association. ASEA, in addition to representing the elver fishery, represents the interests of harvesters of mature eels.
Maine is the only state with a substantial elver fishery, although South Carolina has a legal fishery with annual landings under 500 pounds and last month regulators approved a new, 200-pound elver fishery in North Carolina for an in-state aquaculture project. Nearly every state along the Atlantic Seaboard allows the commercial harvest of mature silver or yellow eels.
According to Mitchell Feigenbaum, a Pennsylvania-based eel and elver buyer and director of the ASEA, a merger with MEFA would give harvesters a much louder voice before the regulators who manage the fishery and to counteract efforts by various conservation groups to have the American eel designated as endangered.
“It’s more efficient to operate as one organization,” Feigenbaum said. “There’s strength in numbers.”
According to Feigenbaum, although the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has determined that the American eel population is in no danger, regulators from Europe and other eel-producing countries continue to raise questions about sustainability because their industries have a competitive interest in limiting the quantity of elvers shipped overseas from the United States.
Another issue for elver harvesters now that Maine has established individual landings quotas is to make those quotas transferrable by sale or inheritance like any other valuable asset so that fishermen can enjoy the benefits of “unlocking the latent value” of their quota shares.