AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee voted unanimously Monday morning to support a bill that will allow the Penobscot Nation to issue 48 elver fishing licenses to its members.

Eight of the licenses would allow the holder to use two pieces of fishing gear, while the remaining 40 license holders would be restricted to one type of gear only. The Penobscots would indicate on each license what kind of gear the license holder is permitted use.

The types of gear allowed in Maine are either hand-dip nets or large, funnel-shaped fyke nets that are fixed in place along the banks of tidal waterways.

The Penobscot Nation has lobbied the Legislature to be allowed to issue more than eight elver licenses each year, which is its present limit. Interest in the Maine fishery, which runs for 10 weeks every spring, has soared since the price of the juvenile American eels, also known as glass eels, skyrocketed in 2011.

The average price elver fishermen have earned shot up from around $188 per pound three years ago to nearly $2,000 per pound last year. Last year, elver fishermen in Maine harvested more than 19,000 pounds of elvers, for which they cumulatively earned nearly $38 million, making it the second most valuable fishery in Maine behind the state’s $339 million lobster fishery.

Maine Department of Marine Resources held a lottery In February for elver licenses that were not renewed by prior license holders. Only four licenses were available, yet more than 5,000 people applied for the chance to win a license. Since 2006, DMR has limited the number of licenses it issues to 407.

A tsunami in March 2011 wiped out aquaculture ponds in Japan where the exported eels are raised to adult size, which led to the spike in demand.

There are concerns about the effect of fishing on American eel populations, which has led Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to set limits on the fishery and the federal U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider listing the species under the Endangered Species Act. DMR officials have said that, if the number of licenses issued in Maine are to be increased, they want to make sure they stay within ASMFC limits and to demonstrate that Maine is taking steps to protect the resource from overharvesting.

Another bill would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to issue 200 elver licenses to its members. Maine state law currently does not limit the number of elver licenses that the Passamaquoddies can issue. That bill, LD 451, also would allow DMR to hold a lottery to issue 25 additional licenses for dip-net users only, and would allow the Houlton Band of Maliseets to issue 16 elver licenses — eight for dip nets and eight for fixed gear or fyke nets. The Maliseets currently are not permitted to issue any elver fishing licenses to their members.

During last year’s 10-week elver season, the Passamaquoddy Tribe caught state officials by surprise by issuing 236 elver licenses. In the years leading up to 2012, the tribe had issued only a handful of elver licenses, according to DMR officials.

Maine is one of only two states, the other being South Carolina, where elver fishing is allowed. Maine’s elver season is scheduled to begin Friday, March 22.

Avatar photo

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....