In this May 25, 2017, file photo, baby eels swim in a plastic bag after being caught near Brewer, Maine. Maine fishermen are urging interstate fisheries regulators to increase Maine's annual catch limit for baby eels, even though the state continues to fight illegal poaching in the fishery. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

BREWER, Maine — More than 60 fishermen told an interstate marine fisheries official Wednesday that Maine’s annual baby eel catch limit should be raised because there are “plenty” of eels in Maine — even though Maine once again finds itself having to address the issue of ongoing poaching in the fishery.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering whether to raise the state’s baby eel quota, also known as elvers, from 9,688 pounds to 11,749 pounds. It held a hearing on the topic Wednesday in Brewer and plans to hold another in Augusta on Thursday, June 7.

With fishermen earning more than $2,300 per pound for their catch this spring, the 2,000-pound difference could mean as much as $4.8 million in additional revenue for the statewide fishery.

The value of the statewide catch this spring is estimated to be $21.7 million, which is the third-highest annual landings value ever for the fishery, and the highest since Maine adopted a statewide catch limit in 2014.

“We don’t believe at all the [American eel] population is depleted,” John Banks, director of natural resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation, told commission official Kirby Rootes-Murdy. “We’re hearing from [harvesters in] the field that this population is not in trouble at all.”

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Wednesday that the way the 2018 elver fishing season ended last month “didn’t help” the argument in favor of increasing Maine’s quota.

The department abruptly ended the season on May 24, when the statewide catch was still 500 pounds below its 9,688-pound quota, after Marine Patrol discovered that some licensed dealers had been engaged in illegal, under-the-table cash transactions for the lucrative eels. State law prohibits cash transactions and requires all sales to be recorded with a electronic swipe-card system that charts each fisherman’s catch and each dealer’s purchases.

“I’ve been very clear with the other commissioners up and down the East Coast that my goal is to figure out how it happened, how we can fix it with different changes in laws and rules, and we’ll move forward with doing it as expeditiously as possible,” Keliher said after the hearing. “That said, if they don’t feel comfortable, there’s no way they are going to vote for a quota increase for the state of Maine. This fishery creates illegal activity in their states. We have to get this under control.”

Keliher declined to get into specifics about how the dealers allegedly were getting around the swipe-card system — which was implemented in 2014 to combat widespread poaching in the fishery — but he did say he believes the state can put additional measures in place to reduce the number of illegally caught elvers that get smuggled into the distribution chain. The state could have officials monitor packing and shipping operations, or could place seals on shipping boxes to ensure they contain legally caught elvers.

And, he added, he thinks the state can have a plan by the time the commission votes on increasing Maine’s quota later this summer, and have it approved by the Legislature before the 2019 season starts next March.

“We have between now and August to put together our argument and to create a plan to fix the problem,” Keliher said, adding he has been getting suggestions from industry members. “People understand the risk. If we really didn’t get this under control over a few years they could close the fishery down.”

“This is all driven by greed. This is 100 percent greed,” he added. “It’s too much money.”

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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....