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.

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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....