April 28, 2013

Elver fishing frenzy keeps state wardens busy as season continues

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Just after midnight early Thursday morning from a bridge over the Presumpscot River in Falmouth, the shoreline seemed strung in the soft, cold light of fireflies or the flickering flames of candles, magical in the half dark, lit by a full moon.

click image to enlarge

Stephen Staples of Hallowell sets a fyke net in early April at the confluence of Cobbossee Stream and the Kennebec River in Gardiner. The elver fisherman said he got paid $2,200 a pound for the baby eels.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

But those lights were actually evidence of men at work. Each marked a spot where an elver fisherman was dip-netting for the baby eels that constitute one of the most valuable -- and violated -- fisheries going right now: elvers.

Competition for elvers is fierce, and so far the season has already produced a flurry of new developments, from the largest illegal possession case on record to an unusual strain in relations between the state and the Passamaquoddy tribe about licensing. Even the licensed fishermen have weighed in, with 50 last month forming the first Maine advocacy association for the fishery.

Ticketed violations are down compared to the same period last year -- a fact that might seem surprising, given the fascination with the fishery and battles about licensing. From March 1 to April 19, 2012, 158 summonses were handed out by marine patrol officers. During the same period this year, that number dropped to 103.

The reduction is probably the result of a number of factors, said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Greater public and media interest, along with strict enforcement and now criminal penalties, also probably have left some poachers more wary of being noticed. And the elver season in some coastal areas has been slower to start this spring, he said.

The intense interest in the fishery this year is occurring simultaneously with the rising tide of federal attention. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has management jurisdiction over most fisheries in waters shared by states, is gathering public comments in New England and along the East Coast on proposed changes to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American eel. A meeting is set for 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Augusta Armory.

Elvers -- by Maine law, American eels less than 6 inches long -- have waxed and waned in value among the state's fisheries, ranging from the low wholesale price of about $25 a pound just 10 years ago to last year's all-time high of $2,000. This past week they were commanding a wholesale price of $1,500 to $1,800 from Portland-area dealers.

The fishery also has demanded stricter enforcement from state marine patrol officers, who track licenses, possession of the eels, and the method and sites of fishing. They have been a more visible presence among fishermen this season, Nichols said.

The 2013 elver season overall has been tumultuous, marred by poachers and riddled with conflicts about licensing. The Department of Marine Resources and the Passamaquoddy Nation locked horns early on, because the tribe has reserved its sovereignty over licensing tribal members, issuing nearly three times as many licenses as the state allocated to the tribe. The DMR in turn has reasserted its authority in enforcement, refusing to recognize as valid or legal license numbers higher than the state total.

Enforcement in darkness

That's made the elver season more demanding for Maine Marine Patrol Officer Tom Hale, of Portland, who helps monitor sites in Cumberland County, scouring river banks, stream beds and even culverts for people violating state law by trying to harvest elvers without valid licenses. Shortly after dark last Wednesday night, Hale began a tour of areas in and around Portland that are favored for dip netting.

From his patrol truck, outfitted with a computer, he stayed in touch with his fellow officers by cellphone, exchanging information about particular sites that tend to be popular. He spends plenty of time on foot, too, combing the woods and carrying out one big part of his job: sneaking up on people and, he acknowledged, sometimes scaring them half to death with the surprise of having a law enforcement officer emerge from the trees.

(Continued on page 2)

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