Elver Fishermen question regulation fairness at forumConsidered 'renegade fishery,' in danger of closure in coming years
Rockport — Members of the Maine Elver Fisherman Association packed a conference room at the Samoset Saturday, March 1, during the Maine Fishermen's Forum, questioning state officials about the new legislation and regulations that will affect them.
While many of the fishermen were not happy with proposed regulations and a new swipe card system, they were told they might not have had a fishing season this year at all.
Terry Stockwell of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said there are other states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regulatory organization comprising east coast states from Maine to Florida, that wanted to shut down or severely limit the elver fishery in Maine. Stockwell has been traveling out of state for meetings of the commission, making the case for Maine's elver fishermen.
Elver Fisherman Association Executive Director Jeff Pierce said the fishermen have to stay within the state limits and make the swipe cards work, or out-of-state regulators will shut them down in the future.
"We have to prove we're not a renegade fishery," he said.
Elvers are baby eels caught in Maine and delivered live to overseas markets, mostly in Asia, where they are cared for until they are adults and eaten as delicacies. They can fetch $2,000 a pound for fishermen.
"Nothing we're going to do is going to be fair," Marine Resources Department Commissioner Pat Keliher said, speaking to the impossibility of working out a statewide system that is perfectly fair to all fishermen.
Problems with poaching could also threaten the entire fishery, state officials said. To that, one fisherman said there are unwritten rules in every fishery, and they will be enforced this year.
Keliher warned that pushing 'unwritten rules' would only cause more problems. He encouraged fishermen to report problems to the Marine Patrol rather than taking matters in their own hands.
Two emergency bills concerning regulation of the fishery are now before the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee. The bills may be voted on within a week, according to Deirdre Gilbert, director of marine policy for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The bills set up a quota system for the state, limiting the number of glass eels that can be caught and sold both statewide and by individual fishermen. About 21.9 percent of the catch will be allocated to various Native American tribes in the state. The new laws will also make fishing over the limit a Class D crime with a $2,000 fine, Gilbert said.
In addition, fishermen will need to use state-issued Elver Transaction Cards or swipe cards when catching, selling and dealing with elvers. Fishermen will have to have this on their person while fishing. Penalties for failing to work within this system will include license suspensions and possible revocations.
Any delay in passing the bills could delay the season, which is set to start around March 22.
If the bills do not pass, the fishery will go to an open derby system and Pierce said that will result in it being closed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The quota statewide for the year will be nearly 12,000 pounds of eels. After the tribal amount is taken out, that leaves a little over 9,000 pounds for the rest of the fishery.
Individual fishermen will be given limits based on their last three years catch. Some fishermen criticized this as being unfair. Some noted they had held licenses for 18 years, and questioned why only the last three would be taken into consideration.
One fisherman said he was being penalized for being honest about his catch and not cheating.
Others complained it will be difficult to keep track of their catch, and argued the swipe cards should cut fishermen off as soon as they hit the limit automatically. One fisherman said it would likely lead to more fishermen getting fined.
Next year the state may issue special crew licenses for those assisting licensed elver fishermen. For now, only those with an elver license can work in assisting another fisherman.
In addition to meeting with state officials and fishermen to answer questions about the future of the fishery, the association held its annual meeting at the forum. Pierce was elected to another term as the group's executive director. In addition, two board members and the secretary were elected.
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 122 or email@example.com.