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Maine Elver Industry Facing Cuts As Juvenile Eel Stocks Struggle
12/09/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Elver fishermen and dealers will offer their ideas for reducing next season's catch at a key meeting this week with state fisheries regulators. Maine agreed to cut landings by between 25 and 40 percent in October. In exchange, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission agreed to delay, for a year, the adoption of new rules to manage the suddenly lucrative elver fishery. As Jay Field reports, heavy harvesting and a depleted overall stock of juvenile American eels is driving worries about the long-term sustainability of the species.

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Maine Elver Industry Facing Cuts
Originally Aired: 12/9/2013 5:30 PM


Elvers have expoded in value. In 2010, Maine elver fishermen made an average of $185 a pound for their catch, which was sold to the Japanese as a delicacy. But the follwing spring, a tsunami tore through Japan, decimated Asian eel farms and turned the American market on its head.  By 2012, that average price per pound went up - a lot - to $2,000. It dropped off a bit last year, but still topped out at as much as $1,700.

Patrick Keliher says don't expect the recent market dynamics to change anytime soon. "Based on indications that we've had from some of the larger dealers, who deal directly with overseas contacts in China and Korea, there seems to be an expansion of some eel farming in those countries," says Keliher, commissioner of Maine's Marine Resources Department.

He says that suggests that Asian demand for Maine-caught glass eels will continue to be high in 2014. "As long as the supply is wanted and the demand is as high as it's been, I don't see any major changes," Keliher says. "Some are indicating that the price may be higher next year."

State and federal regulators worry that continued strong demand for elvers in Asia will further deplete the fishery along the East Coast of the U.S. So the group that monitors the glass eel population along the East Coast has offered Maine and its fishermen a deal: Come up with ideas to reduce the next year's catch from a little over 18,000 to a little over 12,000 pounds, and put off, for a year, strict new rules to more tightly control elver harvesting.

Jeff Pierce, with the Maine Elver Fishermen's Association, says one idea that's certain to come up at a public meeting Wednesday in Augusta is the possibility of individual catch quotas.  "Some of things with an individual quota - the guys who are really good fishermen aren't going to take a 33 percent cut. They'll be taking a 60 percent cut."

Pierce says really bad fishermen, meantime, could end up with a really high quota. "Just cause they have been in the fishery a long time doesn't mean they've ever caught that amount," he says.

Both Pierce and Commissioner Pat Keliher say they're eager to avoid moving to a derby-style system, where fishermen race up and down the coast trying to outfish each other. Keliher says he's eager to hear feedback on the idea of giving each elver fisherman a state-issued swipe card, "which will allow us to monitor the catch in real time and establish a hard quota."

What's unclear, though, is whether swipe cards would help solve another big problem affecting the industry: elver poaching. Keliher isn't holding his breath. "Until we can find a way to stop creating an incentive to sell illegally caught eels, then it will continue at some level," he says.

Ongoing tension between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over elver fishing licenses is also likely to come up at Wednesday's meeting. Passamaquoddy leaders and state regulators are at odds over who should manage elver fishing in tribal waters.

But that's not the only dispute between the state and the tribe over glass eels. The Department of Health and Human Services is conducting a special welfare fraud investigation targeting 500 licensed Passamaquoddy elver fishermen. 

Photo:  Patty Wight


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