August 3, 2013

Group could catch flak over elvers regulations

The fishery will remain open but a board will decide next week on possible regulations.

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

The debate over catch limits and quotas for elvers in Maine and other Atlantic states could be renewed next week when a federal commission meets to review recommendations for changes to its proposed management plan for American eels.

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A federal commission meets next week to review recommendations for changes to its proposed management plan for American eels.

Associated Press File Photo

The board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet Wednesday in Virginia to decide whether to move ahead on its working group's recommendations or incorporate details not included in the most recent management plan.

At stake is a fishery that's worth tens of millions of dollars a year in Maine alone, with baby eels often selling for $2,000 a pound or more.

Among its key recommendations, the working group:

Voted unanimously against maintaining the status quo across all American eel fisheries. Members did not specify what changes should be made.

Opposed closing the elver fishery, in part because of its economic importance to Maine and because the stock assessment numbers were skewed by dramatically different counts over a period of 20 years.

Endorsed the concept of a quota system for harvesting of American eel in all life stages (elver, yellow and silver) but did not specify numbers.

Supported the possibility of opening elver fisheries in states that do not now have them. A framework of standards to regulate new elver fisheries would have to be created.

Proposed cutting the bag limit for recreational fisheries in half, to 25 pounds.

Some of the changes – including recreational catch limits – are expected to gain support, commission officials said. But based on past responses, others could be more controversial.

"The committee did decent work," said Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fisherman's Association, but the draft proposal leaves many questions and problems. "It's a mess, to be honest with you."

Pierce said a quota system would be unworkable, and there are issues over permissible gear.

"A quota system is a nightmare; it's impossible," he said. "How do you enforce it?"

He said fishermen will be asked to accept "reasonable reductions" in catch, but they already have seen cuts. He noted the dramatic decrease in the number of elver licenses issued by the state – from 3,000 in 1995 to 757 in 2013. Of this year's total, 150 were issued to the Passamaquoddy Indians.

A final plan must go through several phases of review and is not expected to be completed before this fall, said Terry Stockwell, a working group member and the director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The dispute over the American eel fishery stems from a conflict between perceived conservation issues and very real economic gains, said Stockwell, a former fisherman from Southport.

In 2012, 19,000 pounds of elvers, sold at nearly $2,000 a pound on average, brought in nearly $38 million – 7 percent of the state's total fisheries revenue. The elver fishery is now Maine's second-largest, trailing only lobsters in economic impact.

"These little guys wouldn't be getting so much attention if they weren't worth so much," Stockwell said.

Maine fishermen are likely to be disappointed by slightly lower quotas, he said, but moves to close the fishery appear to have been soundly defeated.

"We wanted the (option of) closure of the fishery off the table," Stockwell said.

Elver fishermen have made their feelings known on that point. In May, they turned out in force for a meeting in Augusta to argue that the draft proposal was based on flawed counts of eel populations, contained unrealistic restrictions on gear and harvest limits, and was punitive to Maine elver fishermen.

"It's scary," said Pierce, of the Maine Elver Fisherman's Association. "I don't want food stamps. I want to work, and I like to work hard. But I want to get paid, too."

(Continued on page 2)

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