BREWER, Maine — Several weeks after the issue was debated at a public meeting in Augusta, elver fishermen seem to remain split on whether the state should implement one statewide quota or hundreds of individual quotas to reduce Maine’s 2014 elver harvest.

Maine has been told by Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that it must reduce its 2014 statewide catch total of the juvenile American eels by 25 to 40 percent from the 18,253 total pounds that were caught statewide last spring. The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been seeking feedback from elver fishermen to find out how to best achieve that reduction.

The extent to which the state’s several hundred licensed elver fishermen are split on the issue is difficult to ascertain, however. At a public meeting Tuesday afternoon in Brewer, Patrick Keliher, commissioner for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, took a straw poll of preferences among the nearly 120 people who were there.

There wasn’t a clear majority for any of them, though most of the discussion was focused on whether the reduction would be best achieved with one statewide quota or hundreds of individual ones.

Fewer than half of the people in the room, which included fishermen, state officials and others interested in the issue, indicated they would support a derby-style fishery, in which the state would impose a statewide catch limit without limiting what individual fishermen could catch. But fewer than half said they would support an individual quota system, in which each fisherman would have a limit to how much he or she could catch.

Fishermen who favor a derby-style system said that not imposing individual limits will reward those who work hard and put in the effort, and could allow some to catch even more than they caught last year.

“You’re going to have people who just don’t reach their quota,” fisherman Billy Milliken of Jonesport told Keliher, which will mean money that legally could be made in the elver fishery won’t be. “The state needs this revenue. We need this revenue.”

Those who favor individual quotas indicated that such set allotments would help preserve income that the fishermen have grown to depend on each spring because they could fish where and when they wanted without having to worry about the season being shut down early. It also would help discourage poaching because licensed fishermen would be less willing to use up some of their quota by selling and splitting the profit from someone else’s catch.

“I think the individual quota would protect my privilege [in having a license] the most,” Mark Fields of Indian Island said.

Interest in Maine’s elver fishery has increased significantly since prices that fishermen get for the juvenile American eels skyrocketed in 2011 and again in 2012. After averaging $185 per pound in 2010, prices Maine fishermen got for their catch rose to more than $1,800 per pound two years later, according to DMR statistics. Last spring, prices generally hovered between $1,500 and $1,700 per pound, according to industry officials.

DMR officials have said the inter-state fisheries commission was prepared last fall to limit Maine’s annual harvest to a statewide total of a little more than 5,000 pounds. However, Maine officials convinced the commission to wait a year and to gather more data on the fishery, on the condition that Maine reduce its catch, before the commission adopts new restrictions on elver fishing.

Several fishermen raised the issue of making changes to gear restrictions, which limit each fisherman to either one or two large, funnel-shaped fyke nets, or to a single hand-held dip net. Keliher said the commission’s current elver fishery plan does not allow Maine to adjust its gear restrictions but that adjustments could be made with the next commission-approved fishery plan, which would be implemented prior to Maine’s 2015 elver season.

Keliher said the Legislature would have to approve any proposal to adjust gear restrictions or to implement individual quotas which, he noted, do not exist in any other fishery in Maine. If DMR does recommend individual quotas to the Legislature, he added, he will suggest a sunset date for eliminating them so they do not automatically become permanent. If the price of elvers declines, the pressure on the fishery likely would decrease significantly, he said.

“If the price was $50 per pound, we wouldn’t be here,” Keliher said.

Keliher said he expects to have made a decision on how to reduce elver landings in Maine by the time the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets in Alexandria, Va., on Feb. 6. The rules aimed at reducing those landings are expected to be in place by the time Maine’s 10-week season starts on March 22.

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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....