ELLSWORTH, Maine — The state’s 2014 elver season officially opened at noon Sunday under a significantly different management scheme but with many of the high hopes people have placed in the lucrative fishery for the past few years.

And it may proceed relatively absent of the rancor and legal skirmishing that has simmered between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe since 2012. Despite raising fierce objections to state demands that it impose individual quotas on its tribal licensees, tribal officials have indicated this weekend that it has changed its tribal laws and implemented individual quotas.

“Given the dire economic problems facing tribal members and the investment of two years in developing the elver fishery, the tribe made the difficult decision to amend their own law to assure safety for their fishers” Joseph Socobasin, chief of the tribe’s Indian Township, said Saturday in a prepared statement.

Clayton Cleaves, chief of the tribe’s community at Pleasant Point, said that when he met with Gov. Paul LePage last month, LePage indicated he might ask the National Guard to assist if there are any riverside confrontations.

“We want our people to be safe,” Cleaves said. “This is of paramount importance.”

The fishery has become a lot more important to the state’s economy since 2011, when soaring demand in Asia caused prices paid to elver fishermen to skyrocket. Fishermen on average got $185 per pound in 2010, when the total value of the statewide harvest was less than $600,000. In 2012, fishermen averaged $1,866 per pound and the statewide harvest was worth more than $38 million.

This year, as part of a mandated plan to reduce the overall statewide catch, Maine has implemented individual catch quotas for the first time ever. The state had tried to work out an agreement with Maine’s four federally recognized Indian tribes exempting them from individual quotas, but the deal fell through when the state attorney general’s office raised constitutional concerns about imposing individual quotas on some people but not on others.

Maine Department of Marine Resources also is issuing electronic swipe cards to each fisherman that will keep track of that person’s catch and prevent them from selling elvers once their quota has been reached. All licensed elver dealers in Maine are required to use the cards to electronically document their transactions.

DMR had indicated that if the tribes did not use individual quotas, they would not get swipe cards from the state. This effectively would have prevented tribal fishermen from being able to sell their catch legally to any licensed dealer.

Jeff Nichols, spokesman for DMR, indicated Sunday in an email that the department has not yet received a list of names of elver fishermen licensed by the Passamaquoddy Tribe. He added that the department has received lists of individual members licensed by the Penobscot and Micmac tribes. He said swipe cards will be issued to those license holders between 9 a.m. and noon Tuesday, April 8, at the Department of Marine Resources offices, 650 State St., Bangor.

Early Sunday afternoon, fishermen were erecting more than a dozen large, funnel-shaped fyke nets along the banks of the Union River in downtown Ellsworth. Watching and chatting with a few of the fishermen was Sgt. Troy Dow of Marine Patrol, the law enforcement division of DMR.

Dow said that, unlike recent years, poaching has not been an issue in the days leading up to the start of the season. Because Maine is the only state north of South Carolina where elver fishing is allowed, poached elvers that were being smuggled into the state from elsewhere had become a significant concern for law enforcement officials and regulators charged with protecting eel stocks.

The cold weather this winter and over the past month have helped slow down the migration of newborn eels from the ocean into tidal waterways, Dow said, but the biggest deterrent to early season poaching has been the quota system. Licensed fishermen are far less likely to sell someone else’s catch in exchange for a cut of the proceeds when they could sell only their own and keep all the revenue.

“Obviously, when you have something worth this much money, you’re going to have poaching,” Dow said. But the number of people who traffic in black market eels, he added, is expected to be much smaller than those who poached in past years to make a quick buck.

The citations Marine Patrol handed out leading up to Sunday, Dow said, have been for setting up fyke nets too early.

Bill Sheldon, a licensed elver fisherman and dealer from Woolwich, was in Ellsworth around noon Sunday to set up a net for himself on the riverbank. He predicted that, with the two week delay to the start of the season and expected low landings early on, the season might come to an end on May 31 before the overall statewide quota of 11,749 pounds is reached.

Sheldon added that the overseas market is weaker this spring than it has been in the past two years. As a result, prevailing prices are likely to start out several hundred dollars lowers than they were at the end of the 2013 season, when they were around $1,600 per pound.

“I’m waiting on some phone calls this afternoon,” Sheldon said. “We really won’t know until this evening. I would certainly think it would be under $1,000 [per pound].”

Trescott resident Julie Keene also was in Ellsworth on Sunday, setting up a fyke net on the riverbank. A licensed elver fisherman for 21 years, she said she’s heard opening day prices would be around $400 or $500 per pound. She said the elver fishery has been a “godsend” for her and her family in recent years, but that she does not take it for granted.

“I don’t know how the season’s going to go,” Keene said. “We’ve fished for $400 [per pound] before. There’s no guarantee in any of these fisheries.”

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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....