A number of potential changes facing elver fisheries on the Atlantic coast have prompted Maine elver fishermen to form a professional group to protect their interests.
The Maine Elver Fisherman Association was formed by a vote of 42 attendees at March 26 meeting in Ellsworth.
“It’s something these guys have been wanting to do for a long time,” said Jeffrey Pierce said on April 2. Pierce, a Dresden resident and the founder and executive director of Alewife Harvesters of Maine, was selected to be the group’s interim executive director.
Harvesting elver, juvenile American eel also known as “glass eels,” first became an industry in Maine in the 1970s when prices for the elver was about $300 a pound. For the last 20 years, prices have averaged around $20-$50 a pound, Pierce said.
Last year prices went sharply up and the total elver catch in Maine was about 18,000 pounds, for a record breaking total value of $38 million. In the previous five years, the total Maine catch fluctuated from about 3200 to 8500 pounds, according to documents from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
The increase in total catch is the result of 20 years of elver conservation in Maine, where fisherman have not been allowed to fish the middle third of waterways, Pierce said.
There are about 50 elver license holders in Lincoln County, but somewhere between 80-100 people harvest elvers in the county’s waterways, Pierce said. The industry is not as big here as it is downeast, but elvers run all through the state, he said.
“If you’ve got a river, a stream, or a brook going into a piece of water, there’s elver in them,” Pierce said.
This year’s elver season opened on March 22 and prices of $1700 to $2000 per pound have been reported.
Despite the high prices, many elver fishermen are concerned because a potential moratorium on American eel harvesting in the Atlantic states puts their industry at risk, Pierce said.
“Addendum III,” a proposed change to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s management plan for elver, offers a variety of options for American eel – glass, yellow, and silver eel – fisheries, including leaving the regulations as they are, closing fisheries, setting quotas, and others that can be implemented singly or in combination.
Addendum III states that American eel – including glass, yellow, and silver eels – is at or near historically low levels because of a variety of factors, including overfishing, habitat loss, climate and ocean conditions, food web changes, and other causes.
For elver, the options are maintaining current regulations, closing the fishery, setting a quota, stricter dealer reporting requirements, and setting a tolerance for how many pigmented eels can be harvested.
Pigmented eels are older than their glass eel counterparts, and are more susceptible to dying during relocation to stock ponds in Asia, Pierce said. Because of this, the pigmented eels are not as valuable and should be left to breed more eels, he said.
Members of MEFA have already agreed not to harvest the pigmented eels, Pierce said. “That’s our seed corn,” he said. “It’s being sustainable and it’s being wise.”
Pierce said MEFA is in favor of the stricter dealer requirements, the pigmented eels tolerance, and maintaining current regulations, but are also looking to add a sixth option for a state flexibility option to the management plan.
“A one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t work,” Pierce said. “Each state suffers from different geographical problems.”
Maine, as an example, suffers with passage problems from dams in waterways, which also serves to limit habitat, Pierce said. However, with direction from ASMFC’s technical committee, Maine could make elver harvesting sustainable, he said.
The window to get the state flexibility option is quickly closing as the public input period on Addendum III ends in April, but MEFA is going to work hard to make their voice heard, Pierce said.
“These guys [ASMFC] have been having hearings for two years on this,” Pierce said. “We haven’t even been to the table.”
Pierce said he hopes advocating for the elver fishermen will help protect Maine jobs and a source of income that is a critical supplement to many Maine families.
“We can’t lose this industry in Maine, we just can’t,” he said.
In the week since its formation, membership in the Maine Elver Fisherman Association has already more than doubled to 90, but the group is in need of more members, more support, and more input on the issues, Pierce said. Annual membership dues are $250.
Anyone with comments on Addendum III who can’t attend a public hearing can submit their comments on the MEFA website, http://www.maineelver.org, and MEFA members will present them, Pierce said.
Public hearings on Addendum III in Maine are scheduled for: April 15 from 9 a.m. to noon at Ellsworth City Hall Auditorium, 1 City Hall Ave., Ellsworth; April 15 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Science Lecture Hall, 9 O’Brien Ave., Machias; and April 19 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Yarmouth Log Cabin, 196 Main St., Yarmouth. For more information on the public hearings, contact Terry Stockwell at 624-6553.
For more information on Maine Elver Fisherman Association or to become a member, contact MEFA board member Greg Blackler at 542-7635 or send mail to MEFA, P.O. Box 85, Newcastle, 04553.