Tuesday, December 10, 2013
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A fisheries commission postponed a decision Wednesday on whether to impose quotas or other restrictions on commercial fishing for baby eels, the translucent fingerlings that have become big business in Maine with prices that have topped $2,000 a pound.
In this Friday, March 24, 2012 photo, a man holds elvers – young, translucent eels – in Portland, Maine. A fisheries commission postponed a decision Wednesday on whether to impose quotas or other restrictions on commercial fishing for baby eels, meaning that any new elvers regulation probably won't happen before the 2014 season.
In this April 2012 file photo, Bruce Steeves uses a lantern while dip netting for elvers on a river in southern Maine. Elvers have become big business in Maine with prices that have topped $2,000 a pound.
The delay means that any new regulations on elvers or "glass eels" may not be finalized until early next year just prior to the 2014 elver season, if then. But several people who fish for elvers in Maine were pleased to emerge from Wednesday's meeting without severe catch limits on a species that now ranks as the second most-valuable fishery in Maine after lobster.
"It's better than closure" of the fishery, said Darrell Young, founder of the Maine Elver Fisherman Association.
For the second straight meeting, members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's American eel management board were unable to reach any consensus on whether to establish quotas for elvers and, if so, how to carry them out.
Instead, commission members opted to direct a special policy committee to craft a proposal for a quota system applicable to the entire East Coast -- opening the door to fishing beyond Maine and South Carolina, the only two states with commercial elver fisheries. The latest proposal is expected to come back to the commission in October, with final approval potentially by February.
Maine issued 744 elver licenses this year, resulting in a catch exceeding 18,000 pounds. Beginning in mid-March, licensed fishermen staked out coastal streams to catch glass eels in long, conical nets or hand-dipped nets as the eels swam up river.
Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, chaired the working group that proposed a list of recommendations that were only partly adopted on Wednesday. Nonetheless, Stockwell said he was comfortable with the decision to delay action on elvers, saying he believes it will lead to stronger and fairer regulations.
But Corey Hinton, a Washington-based attorney representing Maine's Passamaquoddy Tribe, said the tribe hopes any changes are in place prior to the 2014 fishing season to avoid leaving all parties in "regulatory limbo."
Unlike the state of Maine, the Passamaquoddy Tribe sets quotas for its fishermen as a way to protect the resource. But the tribe was involved in a high-profile sovereignty dispute with the Maine DMR this year after tribal leaders issued several hundred more elver permits than allowed by the state.
"We are encouraged by the direction the commission appears to be going," Hinton, a Maine native and Passamaquoddy tribal member, said of the proposed quota-based system. "But the pace with which they are moving is definitely troubling. We had hoped they would make a decision at the last meeting."
It was clear from Wednesday's discussion that disagreements remain on a number of fronts, despite months of work by the working group and hours of discussion among commission members.
One of the biggest areas of discord is on the overall health of the American eel population. The stocks have been labeled as "depleted" and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently studying whether eels need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
But fishermen and some state regulators insist that they are seeing huge numbers of glass eels making their way up the rivers where they will spend most of their lives.
At one point during Wednesday's meeting, a commission member proposed directing the policy committee to language for a 5,300-pound quota to be equally divided among the 15 states within the commission's jurisdiction. Maine fishermen harvested more than 18,000 pounds of elvers this past spring. Under the 5,300-pound quota, Maine's share would drop to just 353 pounds.
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