BANGOR, Maine — After reviewing the matter for the past four years, federal officials have decided not to list American eels under the Endangered Species Act, which could have resulted in Maine’s lucrative elver fishery being shut down.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a prepared statement on Wednesday indicating that American eels are one of 17 species that will not be listed for protection under the federal environmental law.

“The service has determined that petitions to list the American eel [is] not warranted under the [Endangered Species Act],” the statement read. “These findings represent years of collaborative efforts across the United States to conserve and restore once-imperiled species and their habitats and eliminate the need for ESA protection.”

Maine is one of two states, along with South Carolina, that permit fishing for elvers, which are baby American eels. Maine’s elver fishery, which is much larger than South Carolina’s, had a total 2015 landings value of $11.39 million. Several states, including Maine, allow fishing for adolescent and adult eels, which are not as lucrative.

Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday in a prepared statement that he welcomed the federal agency’s decision.

“The elver fishery has become, in recent years, a major component of Maine’s coastal economy and is relied upon by hundreds of Maine fishermen,” LePage said. “I am pleased to learn that the hard working men and women who have partnered with the [Maine Department of Marine Resources] to sustain our American eel population will continue to have a chance to harvest this important and valued species.”

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering listing the eels under the Endangered Species Act since 2011. In 2012, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission determined that the eels’ population in American waters was depleted.

Officials with Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday that though the stock of eels has declined in recent decades, it is not at level that would suggest that it is either threatened or endangered. Maine has made several regulatory changes in recent years that have improved the state’s ability to manage the elver fishery, they added.

“We appreciate the careful deliberation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in reviewing the status of the American eel, and remain committed to continued efforts to regulate, manage and improve all life stages of American eels in Maine waters,” Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in the statement.

Demand for elvers has increased sharply in the past five years, boosting the value of Maine’s annual elver harvest from about half a million dollars in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. The value of Maine’s statewide harvest dipped to $8.4 million in 2014, when fishermen on average earned $874 per pound. During Maine’s annual elver season this past spring, fishermen in the state were paid on average more than $2,000 per pound for their catch.

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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....