Maine Fishing Industry

Elver laws proposed, season starts March 22

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - 10:00am
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Two new elver harvesting laws intended to improve conservation and enforcement efforts are under consideration just days before the elver fishing season starts March 22.

Sponsored by Senators Chris Johnson (D-Somerville) and Ed Mazurek (D-Rockland), they have received support from those who invested in the industry early on, but have not been able to acquire a license.

Many people want to get licenses to harvest elvers, as the price per pound is expected to be high. Last season, fishermen were making as much as $2,600 per pound. The fishery overall last season was estimated at a value of over $40 million. The state has limited the total number of licenses issued to 600, but some fishermen believe the fishery could sustain as many as 800.

Fishermen are concerned about potential changes to Maine's eel harvesting by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the regulatory body that oversees marine fisheries along the eastern seaboard, and want to take steps to make sure this fishery is sustainable. The ASMFC American Eel Board has  recently proposed an amendment to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Eel. It proposes increased monitoring and management options to reduce mortality and increase conservation of American Eel stocks in all of the species' life stages (glass, yellow and silver eels).

A hearing on LD 731, an act to increase the Number of Elver Harvesting Licenses and Preserve the Fishery through Conservation, has been scheduled for Wednesday, March 27.

The proposed law addresses two key issues within the industry, by providing additional income for those who have not had a license and establishing a foundation for conservation work to preserve the fishery. It calls for the following measures:

  • Establishes license lotteries for years 2014 and 2015, increasing the number of elver harvesting licenses by 100 each year

  • Increases the number of pieces of allowable gear used to harvest elvers

  • Requires the Department of Marine Resources to work with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on an elver restocking program

  • Prohibits the harvesting of yearling elvers (juvenile eels that have begun to feed)

  • Increases the number of days per week the fishery is closed, from two to three days

  • Calls for a change in a start to the season, from March 22 to April 1

  • And establishes an Eel and Elver Advisory Council to make recommendations to the Department of Marine Resources Commissioner and the legislature on the industry

Last season, Wiscasset elver fisherman Don Sprague expressed some concern that not enough fishermen permitted to catch eels stunts the country's economic potential.However, scientists worry the fishery negatively impacts the overall life-cycle of the American Eel.

Rockland resident Merton Sawyer is among a number of fishermen who have requested the bill. He said conservation is an important element to the proposed law.

He isn't fishing right now, but instead is building and selling fishing nets. Sawyer lost his leg to cancer some years back, and would regardless be getting ready to head out to the riverbanks with his own net had he won a recent lottery. Last month, four fishermen out of 5,200 applicants won the latest statewide elver harvesters' lottery.

However, there is still a chance Sawyer could be able to scoop up elvers. Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher has proposed that 25 more licenses be drawn from the same pool of lottery applicants. The emergency legislation on such a change still needs to pass through the legislature for approval. Even with an increase of 25 licenses this year and two hundred over the next two years, there is still room in the industry for more, Sawyer said.  

Fishermen are also hoping to get the proposed elver license law (LD 731) changed to apply to this fishing season, which runs from March 22 to May 31.

There are a number of aspects to the law Sawyer thinks are important. He said he would like to see people stop taking the young elvers. Such a change is easy, as these eels are not worth as much as glass eels and preventing their taking from waters could help overall population levels, he said.

Sawyer pointed out other conservation efforts that help the fishery, such as: reducing the size of nets, limits on where a person can dip for the eels, screens installed in fyke nets used to keep other species out of the net, thereby reducing bycatch and limits on the number of days the fishery stays open.

“I think a lot of these are common sense,” he said. “I wouldn't want to see the fishery shut down; I think it's good for the economy. I also think it could grow, if it's done right.”

Wayne Alden of Cushing is also concerned about the ASMFC changing regulations to this industry next year. He said he contributed some of the language that went into the proposed bill and would like to see more fishermen have the chance to get licensed.

Like a relatively small number of fishermen in the state, Alden said he started fishing for eels when there wasn't as much to be made from their sale. He thinks it's unfair people who started early are not “grandfathered” in and allowed to have licenses. Unemployed and having some difficulty paying for his heat, Alden would like to see the law be put into effect this season, instead of 2014.

“The state of Maine could put a lot of people back to work,” he said. “You take 50–100 people off welfare and imagine what the state of Maine could save.”

He thinks conservation is just as important. “Without proper conservation and the right people helping it along, this industry is going to go to crap.”

The hearing for LD 731 is scheduled to be held in the state capital, room 206 in the Cross Building, starting at 1 pm, Wednesday, March 27.

Elver harvest enforcement

The other proposed law, LD 632, An Act to Improve Enforcement Mechanisms to the Elver Industry and to Make Technical Changes to Maine's Marine Resources Laws, is being discussed among lawmakers.

Sawyer is also in favor of this proposed law. “I think we should be cracking down on illegal harvesting,” he said.

Deirdre Gilbert, director of Marine Policy at the DMR, has said that since just two states (Maine and South Carolina) have glass eel fisheries, this creates a black market for the eels in the remaining states along the East Coast. Sawyer said he hopes that with new legislation to cut down on illegal harvests it will help demonstrate to the ASMFC the glass eel fishery here can be regulated efficiently. South Carolina is already quite restricted. According to Kate Taylor, Senior Fishery Management Coordinator of the ASMFC in Washington, D.C., the state has issued just 10 glass eel licenses. A 2012 stock assessment of American Eel's entire life cycle has shown depleted population numbers and is a cause for concern for the commission. They attribute a number of possible causes, including historical overfishing, pollution, environmental changes and habitat loss.

The commission's American Eel Board plans to meet on the week of May 20 to discuss the proposed management options the commission is considering for next year. This follows a public comment period set to run until early May. For more information, contact Kate Taylor at 703-842-0740 or visit: www.asmfc.org/.