ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine’s 2013 elver fishing season is not playing out as a repeat of 2012.

For one, the penalties now are higher, thanks to a new law that went into effect on Tuesday.

Anyone who fishes or possesses the young American eels without a license now can be taken to jail for a first offense.

Halfway through the annual 10-week season, prices and the volume of landings are both lower than they were a year ago, according to people connected with the industry. The suspected reason landings are lower so far this year is because air and water temperatures along the Northeast coast, including Maine, were unusually high in the spring of 2012. Elver fishing usually starts out slow in late March, when snow is still a factor, but last year the warm weather made elver landings heavy straight off the bat, people said in interviews this week.

The current prevailing prices elver fishermen are getting have decreased from more than $2,000 per pound, but at around $1,600 they still are exceptionally high compared to what they were only a few years ago.

The high demand in the Far East for the small clear or “glass” eels remains high enough that people have been willing to risk running afoul of the law because of the potential payday that comes with catching a few pounds in a few hours of work. Now, any act of illegally harvesting or possessing elvers is a criminal offense, meaning anyone without a valid license caught fishing or in possession of elvers can be arrested and, if found guilty, sentenced to serve jail time.

Before the adoption of the new law, only repeat unlicensed violators could face criminal charges.

It’s the second year in a row the state has increased penalties for elver fishing violations. In March 2012 the Legislature increased fines from $500 to $2,000 and, instead of limiting license suspensions to one year, gave the head of the state Department of Marine Resources authority to permanently revoke the license of a repeat offender.

As part of the new law, elver dealers now are required to pay fishermen by check rather than with cash. This requirement is aimed at reducing the threat of theft or robbery for people in the fishery who may be carrying tens of thousands of dollars with them, and to provide documentation for the chain of custody of elvers, which officials hope will help prevent poaching.

Pat Bryant, a longtime elver fishermen and dealer in Nobleboro, said Thursday the Asian market for adult eels has softened at the midpoint of the 2013 season. The prevailing price at the end of last season of $2,600 per pound, she said, was bound not to last far into the 2013 season.

“That was an overinflated price to begin with,” Bryant said. She added that the volume of landings also appears to be down this spring, mainly because unusually warm weather in the early spring of 2012 made elver runs abnormally robust.

Elver fishermen in Maine harvested more than 19,000 pounds last year, at least double the volume harvested in any other year since 1998, according to DMR statistics. The average price of nearly $2,000 that fishermen were paid in 2012 is more than double the previous record of $890 in 2011. Prior to that, the highest average annual price fishermen earned during the 10-week season was $347 in 2007.

According to Bryant, poaching is the primary problem the fishery is facing now. The decline in price hasn’t been steep enough to reduce the incentive for some dishonest people without licenses to catch elvers, either in Maine or out of state, and to get licensed elver fishermen in Maine to pass them off as their own, she said. Maine and South Carolina are the only two states that allow elver fishing, and Maine’s fishery is much larger than South Carolina’s. Other states on the East Coast allow fishing for older life stages of the same species.

“It hurts our standing with the federal [American eel] management plan,” Bryant said of elver poaching. “That’s the biggest, most serious issue.”

Federal regulators have raised concerns about the vitality of American eel stocks. Last year, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission indicated in a stock assessment that the eels’ population is depleted in American waters from historical levels, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the species under the Endangered Species Act. As part of a review of its American eel management plan, ASMFC has scheduled a public hearing at the Augusta Armory that will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30.

Rob Stanley, an elver fisherman from Gouldsboro, said Saturday he plans to attend the public hearing in Augusta. Stanley, who set up two large funnel-shaped fyke nets Saturday in the Union River in downtown Ellsworth, agreed that poaching is the biggest issue that could lead to tighter restrictions on the fishery.

Stanley, who has had an elver license since 1993, said he has been approached by poachers to see if he might be willing to sell their eels for them, because dealers are allowed to buy elvers only from licensed fishermen. He wants no part of it, he said, but there are other licensed fishermen who do sell poached eels.

“A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork who I haven’t talked to for years asking me if I’ll sell glass eels for them,” Stanley said. “I just won’t.”

Stanley added that he thinks that making poaching a first-time criminal offense is a good move but that the fines should be even higher. He suggested a fine of $4,000, plus $10 for every elver possessed illegally. With roughly 2,500 elvers in a pound, that would create a very large deterrent, he said.

“That would be a pretty severe fine,” he said. “Really, what they need to do is up the fine a lot more.”

Maj. Alan Talbot of Marine Patrol, the law enforcement division of DMR, said this past week that approximately 100 elver fishing violations have been issued since the season started on March 22, with more than half of them being issued in eastern Maine. Marine Patrol issued approximately 250 elver violations in 2012, he said, and likely will issue that many again this year.
Talbot said it is a “balancing act” this time of year for Marine Patrol to enforce elver laws while also keeping up with its other obligations, but added that the increased penalties should help discourage illegal elver harvesting.

“It’s a deterrent,” he said. “[But] I am very certain there will be people arrested after today.”

There have been several high-profile incidents of people being charged this season as a result of elver poaching allegations.

Before the season started, three Maine men were arrested in New Jersey after law enforcement officials there caught them allegedly fishing for elvers and found them to be in possession of nine pounds of the glass eels. On April 3, Marine Patrol charged a New Hampshire man with illegal possession of 41 pounds of elvers, which at the time were believed to be worth more than $80,000. Six days later, a Rockland man was charged with illegal possession of 11 pounds of elvers.

According to Jeff Nichols, spokesman for DMR, 60 of the citations issued this season have been for license violations. As of the same time last year, he said, Marine Patrol had issued about 160, more than half of which were for license citations.

Other elver fishing offenses that have resulted in charges include not properly tagging gear, fishing during closed periods, not using properly licensed gear and fishing in the middle third of a waterway or within 150 feet of a fishway or a dam with a fishway.

Nichols said that Marine Patrol has continued to cite members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who have been caught fishing with licenses invalidated by DMR but that updated numbers on how many tribal members have been charged were unavailable this past week. As of April 3, Marine Patrol has issued only four license violations to members of the tribe.

Emergency legislation passed this spring limits the tribe to 200 licenses, but the tribe has issued 575 to its members. The response from DMR, which itself has issued 432 licenses this year, was to invalidate most of the licenses that the tribe had issued.

The department has taken action to enforce the new law but both sides have been exploring a possible compromise. Nichols said the matter has not yet been resolved but that discussions between the two sides are ongoing.

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher “continues to make himself available for dialogue [with the Passamaquoddys] while the Marine Patrol is enforcing the law based on the current list of valid license holders,” Nichols said Tuesday in an email.

According to DMR, the number of licenses issued by the tribe has put Maine out of compliance with limits set by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, which has the power to shut down Maine’s lucrative elver fishery. The tribe’s position is that the number of licenses it issues is not important because it has set a season quota of 3,600 pounds, at which point none of its members can continue to fish. The quota, the tribe maintains, is a much more effective conservation tool than a license limit.

Newell Lewey, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council at Pleasant Point and of the tribe’s Fisheries Advisory Committee, said Thursday that the tribe and DMR have not yet reached a final agreement on the dispute. He suggested, without going into detail, that they have agreed on some points and may be close to a full resolution.

The tribal councilor said that, so far, the tribe estimates it has landed fewer than 1,000 pounds of elvers this year. With the season halfway done, it may not reach its 3,600 pound quota by the time the season ends on May 31.

If the elver runs were as robust as they were a year ago, he added, it may have reached that quota two weeks into the season.

“I would say we probably won’t [catch 3,600 pounds],” Lewey said.

In the meantime, the tribe vigorously has been enforcing its elver management plan, Lewey said.

Tribal members have to file weekly catch reports by 5 p.m. every Monday, he said, and those that don’t have had their licenses suspended until the reports are filed with tribal officials. The tribe’s police officers and game wardens also have conducted checks and issued citations for violations such as having fyke nets within 30 feet of each other, he added. He said he did not have numbers for how many citations have been issued.

The tribe’s self-imposed quota mandates that it enforce strict reporting requirements, he said.

“We’ve confiscated nets for violations,” Lewey said. “I think we’re doing an excellent job of managing our fishery.”

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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....