ELLSWORTH, Maine — Officials with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources do not yet have a preliminary estimate for the landings value of this year’s elver season, but the 2012 figures they have compiled so far indicate that it will be much, much higher than it has ever been.

According to comments made in early August by DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s eel board, the value of the 2012 sales added up so far by DMR is close to $40 million. At that value, the elver fishery now ranks as the second most valuable in Maine behind the state’s $335 million lobster fishery and ahead of soft-shell clams, herring, shrimp and scallops among others.

That $40 million figure is more than five times higher than the value of the elver fishery last year, when a spike in demand from Asia caused the price to skyrocket. Elver fishermen in Maine ended up earning a cumulative figure of $7.65 million — a record at the time — for the 8,500 pounds of juvenile eels that they caught during the 10-week season in 2011, earning an average price of nearly $900 per pound. The elver fishery was the fourth most valuable commercial fishery in Maine last year.

In 2010, a year before a March 2011 tsunami that wiped out aquaculture ponds and fishing fleets in northern Japan, elver fishermen in Maine earned a cumulative total of $584,851 for the 3,100 pounds of elvers they caught. The average price elver fishermen earned in 2010 was $185 per pound.

This past spring, the season opened with elver fishermen earning more than $2,000 per pound and, by the time the season ended 10 weeks later, roughly $2,600 per pound.

Deirdre Gilbert, DMR’s director of marine policy, said Friday that the figure cited to the fisheries commission by Keliher is not a preliminary estimate for the entire 2012 season. The state has collected reports from only about 75 percent of Maine’s licensed elver dealers, she said, and none that DMR has received has been audited yet for accuracy.

Gilbert said Keliher told the fisheries commission board that, feasibly, the value of the 2012 elver fishery could end up being closer to $50 million. Keliher was on vacation on Friday and unavailable for comment.

“It was just a speculation about where we might end up,” Gilbert said of Keliher’s comments.

The context in which Keliher provided commission officials with the fishery’s monetary tally is not a rosy one, however. The multistate regulatory agency considers the American eel population to be depleted and has indicated it will consider imposing additional fishing restrictions on the species.

Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that allow commercial elver fishing. Elvers, also known as glass eels, are juvenile American eels that migrate each spring from the Atlantic Ocean, along the East Coast and up rivers and streams. Maine’s “yellow” and “silver” eel fisheries target later life stages of the same species, according to Gilbert.

Gilbert said Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission officials assured Keliher and other DMR staff that whatever additional fishing restrictions — which pertain to length of season, number of licenses, and gear limits — the commission places on American eels will not disproportionately affect Maine’s elver fishery.

“They felt more comfortable the [commission’s eel] board would be looking at that species on all stages,” she said.

At the same time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering a petition to list American eels under the federal Endangered Species Act, which could prohibit any harvesting of the eels. If the species winds up being listed, Maine’s elver fishery could be shut down altogether.

In a petition filed in 2010 by the Center for Environmental Science, Advocacy and Reliability, the environmental advocacy group claims there are many reasons for a decline in eel populations, including dams and disease, but habitat loss leads the list. Maine is a key offender, according to the group. It maintains that habitat loss has been the greatest — 91 percent — between Maine and Connecticut.

Last month, the center filed a complaint in federal court in Washington alleging that U.S. Fish & Wildlife has not adhered to mandated deadlines for reviewing its petition and for deciding whether the species should be listed under the act.

In response to an email inquiry, a USFWS spokesperson indicated last week that the agency announced a year ago that the petition “presents substantial information” that warrants a more extensive status review of the species. The subsequent status review is underway, she said. She did not indicate when USFWS expects to complete the review but added it will not be during this federal fiscal year, which comes to a close at the end of this month.

The leap in landings value is believed to have had a tremendous economic impact for individual fishermen. Until last year, most if not all of them considered their earnings from elver fishing to be supplemental income and made most of their living in other fisheries or doing something else entirely.

But this past spring, between DMR and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, 643 elver licenses were issued statewide. If the total landings are worth $40 million and each fishermen caught roughly the same amount, that would mean license holders earned an average of $62,000 each during the 10-week season. However, because the equipment each license holder is allowed to use — a hand-dip net, or one or two large, funnel-shaped fyke nets — varies from license to license, and because of varying levels of experience, the amount of elvers each fishermen landed is believed to vary greatly.

DMR has capped the number of licenses it grants each year at 407 and at this point expects to have only three unrenewed elver licenses at a license lottery scheduled for next January, according to Gilbert.

Last May, before the 2012 elver season ended, the Passamaquoddy Tribe issued 236 elver licenses to its members, which caught DMR by surprise. The tribe’s move angered nontribal fishermen who have been hoping to get an elver license from DMR but have been unable to do so.

Because of the differing times when the Legislature granted Maine’s Indian tribes the authority to grant fishing licenses, the Passamaquoddies are the only tribe that can grant elver licenses, according to Gilbert. She said that DMR officials hope to meet with officials from all of Maine’s Indian tribes this fall to discuss the issue and to try to arrive at an agreement that would be fair to all Maine residents.

Any new license-granting restrictions on the tribes that the Legislature might approve would have to be proposed this winter as emergency legislation in order for them to go into effect by next spring’s elver season, she said.

An elver fishery worth $40 million would indicate that not only has its value soared, but the volume of landings also has gone up significantly in Maine. Assuming that the average per-pound price over the 10 weeks of the season is roughly $2,300, and the total value of the catch is between $40 million and $50 million, that would mean that between 17,000 and 22,000 pounds of elvers were caught in Maine between late March and the end of May — at least double the 8,500 pounds harvested in Maine in 2011.

The most recent year in which more than 10,000 pounds of elvers were harvested in the state was in 1998, when fishermen caught 14,431 pounds, according to DMR statistics (the total value of the fishery that year was $2.2 million). In 2004, Maine fishermen caught a cumulative total of less than 1,300 pounds of elvers.

Gilbert said Friday that she did not know what level of elver landings might be considered too many by federal officials, but it is likely the increase in the volume of landings in Maine this year will be noted by officials involved in the fisheries commission and federal Endangered Species Act petition review processes.

Gilbert said that Maine officials and residents are keeping a close eye on the regulatory reviews to see what might happen to the state’s elver fishery. Having an elver license during the past two years has, for many Maine fishermen, been the equivalent of winning a cash lottery, she said.

“For the folks with [an elver license], they are concerned about the status of the listing and hope they can continue in that fishery,” Gilbert said.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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....