AUGUSTA, Maine — With the Legislature’s support, state officials are getting more serious about cracking down on illegal elver fishing.

The House and Senate each have approved a bill this week that, after it is signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage, will substantially increase potential fines for fishing for elvers without a license and other elver fishing violations. And if a person commits two offenses, he also could lose his elver license and face suspension of other fishing licenses he might have.

The bill, which was submitted as emergency legislation, received the required two-thirds approval in each legislative chamber and is expected to go into effect as soon as LePage signs it, which is expected to happen on Thursday, March 29.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Wednesday that the new law was brought on by a sharp increase in illegal elver fishing over the past two years. A dramatic increase in the price of elvers has driven the illegal activity. In 2010, the average annual statewide price fishermen received for their elvers was $185 per pound, but last year it jumped to nearly $900 per pound. When the 2012 elver fishing season opened a week ago, it jumped even higher, to more than $2,000.

High demand for the juvenile eels in the Far East, where they are cultivated into adult eels and then sold on the seafood market, is the reason for the skyrocketing prices, according to industry officials.

Previously a violation of Maine’s elver fishing laws could have resulted in a maximum fine of $500 and, if the violation involved tampering with someone else’s gear, a license suspension for one year, according to DMR officials.

With the new law, a first offense for any reason can result in a license suspension for three years and a second offense can result in the violator’s license being permanently revoked. If a violator does not have a license, a second offense becomes a criminal matter rather than just a civil one.

“Now it’s a $2,000 fine and if the violator has another [fishing] license, I have the power to suspend that other license [too],” Keliher said.

The commissioner said the proposed fine had been $5,000, but he said it was lowered to $2,000 because $5,000 wasn’t viewed as a practical amount. The threat of license suspensions and revocations and of criminal prosecution provides ample teeth to the new law, he said.

“The chances of collecting a fine over $2,000 is slim to none,” Keliher said.

Offenses committed under the old law will count as offenses under the new one, he added.

Because federal regulators are considering listing American eels as threatened or endangered, the new law maintains the existing limit on gear in order to make sure it does not allow greater pressure on the resource, Keliher said. There is a cap of 407 elver licenses statewide, which could go up with the new law as long as the amount of permitted gear remains the same. Fishermen are permitted to use either hand-held dip nets or one or two fyke nets, which are large funnel-shaped nets set up at the edge of tidal waterways.

The new law also changes one of the weekly prohibited 24-hour fishing periods from between noon Friday and noon Saturday to between noon Tuesday and noon Wednesday. The prohibition on fishing between noon Saturday and noon Sunday will remain in place.

Major Alan Talbot of Maine Marine Patrol, DMR’s enforcement division, said Wednesday that officers will take a week to educate fishermen about changes to the law and likely will issue warnings for some of the new provisions. After a week, the educational period will be over.

“Patrol will be doing a lot of outreach,” Talbot said.

George Forni, a licensed Sullivan elver fisherman who also works as a buyer for Woolwich-based Kennebec Glass Eels, said Wednesday that raising the fines makes sense. With the price of elvers at more than $1,000 per pound, a $500 fine might not be much of a deterrent, he said.

The going price for elvers now is $1,750 per pound, less than the $2,200 being offered on opening day last week but still significant, Forni said.

“If you [catch] a couple of pounds illegally, you’ve got $3,500 at today’s price,” he said.

Forni added that he has seen unlicensed fishermen catching elvers and even has had some try to sell their catch to him. Forni said he won’t buy from unlicensed fishermen, which is against the law, but he can understand why people without elver licenses are tempted to get in on the action.

“It’s like a gold rush,” he said. “It’s megamoney and it’s a short season. The economy sucks and people are hard up.”

Forni predicted the price is not likely to let up soon.

“I think it will go up before it goes down,” he said.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....

8 replies on “Legislature increases fines for illegal elver fishing after rash of violations”

  1. BFD……..if there is no one to enforce the rules and regs what weight do they carry? The answer is none! Let the rape continue. The fishery will be gone within 2-3 years.

    1.  Setting a fine does not work. If  a guy gets a fine he juts has to harvest more illegally to get the money to pay the fine. All you have to do is go sit in the Machias court some morning and count the number of folks clamming without a license. Then see how many times they have already done it.

      Fines are nothing more then another income stream for the state to take advantage of.

    2. Which is why a high fine that would be a better deterrent.  They should make a fine on a sliding scale twice the value of your catch.

      1.  As I said the fine will not help if you RAISE the fine they will do it MORE to make the money to pay the fine. Go to the Machias court sometime and see for yourself.

        1. The fine will help, when it’s made public how much a person was charged, especially when a 5000 dollar night becomes ten, that is enough of a deterrent to make others think twice about it before they start.  Sure people will get away with it, but that will happen with anyone, but when the fine would put you in such dire straits that you’d have trouble paying bills, you think twice about it.  

  2. Is there a “black market” for selling these things or are the same buyers purchasing from both licesensed and non-licesensed folks?  It would seem that the buyers should be held more accountable if they are buying a catch from someone without a licesense as it is against the law as stated.  Either way, the increase in value for these things certainly will encourage some to try and get around the legal aspects of the business.

    1. What likely happens is some unscrupulous buyers will buy from unlicensed dealers and then some illegal dippers sell their catch to licensed guys.

      1. Yes, those thoughts were in my mind also, but some of these in the business seem to be their own worst enemies…..too bad…..

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