Cold weather and cold cash mark elver season

With elvers fetching as much as $2,600 per pound when the season closed last Friday, a harvester plied his dip net late into the night along the shore of McHeard Stream in East Blue Hill. PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

With elvers fetching as much as $2,600 per pound when the season closed last Friday, a harvester plied his dip net late into the night along the shore of McHeard Stream in East Blue Hill.

AUGUSTA — Maine’s 2015 elver fishing season closed at noon on Friday and the news for the state’s 920 licensed harvesters was decidedly mixed.

A season effectively shortened by cold weather to about four weeks — half the length of the usual March 22 to May 31 season-— saw landings fall to just 5,242 pounds, according to preliminary figures released by the Department of Marine Resources, a drop of 4,445 pounds from last year’s figures.

Despite the reduced landings, Maine’s 920 licensed harvesters — including approximately 465 fishermen from the state’s four recognized tribes who held licenses issued by the state — collected $11,389,864 for the catch, an increase of nearly $3 million over the $8,474,302 landed value of the 2014 harvest.

“This year’s harvest represents a success for Maine’s elver industry,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a statement announcing the landings figures Tuesday morning. “The swipe card system, which we unveiled last season, again worked flawlessly and provided the department with real time data on landings and value.

“We also implemented a dealer-to-dealer swipe card requirement and a new elver exporter license, both of which allowed us to more effectively account for elvers at all points in the chain of custody, which is critical for the effective management of this resource.”

According to both harvesters and dealers, the effect of the poor landings was to jack the price of elvers up to sky-high levels.

Franklin harvester Darrell Young, a founder of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said dealers had paid $2,600 per pound on the last two open days of the season. With May 31 falling on Sunday this year and fishing banned from noon on Fridays through noon on Sundays, the season closed last Friday, two days ahead of the calendar closing date.

According to DMR’s calculation, the average price per pound for elvers harvested this year was $2,172 compared to $874 per pound last year.

It wasn’t just cold water temperatures that reduced the number of elvers in Maine streams and cut the harvest. The spring was also extremely dry and low water levels in streams and rivers allowed elvers to migrate upstream in the middle third of the waterways where fishing is banned.

Although there was some fluctuation, the price was strong throughout the season, according to Mitchell Feigenbaum, chief operating officer of Delaware Valley Fish Co., probably the nation’s largest exporter of live glass eels — the juvenile American eels also identified as elvers.

According to Feigenbaum, in April, when it became apparent that the year’s elver harvest was likely to be poor, the price jumped to $2,000 per pound.

“Early in the season,” Feigenbaum said, “it was my impression that was an artificial price” set by a few dealers whom he described as “new entrants” to the market “who wanted to make a name.”

To his surprise, the price pretty much stayed put.

The high price was cold comfort for a lot of the state’s elver harvesters, each of whom is assigned an individual quota by DMR that is based on prior landings. This year’s total quota of 9,688 pounds, set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, was equal to the total landings in 2014. According to Young, the short season meant that many harvesters caught far less than their quota.

“We landed half the quota,” actually, about 54 percent, “in four weeks,” Young said. “If we’d had eight weeks, we probably would have caught the whole quota.”

The loss of four weeks at the beginning of the season to the coldest winter weather in decades was expensive for the harvesters, he said.

“Four thousand pounds at $2,500, that’s $10 million, isn’t it?”

Young said he tried to persuade Keliher to extend the fishing season, but that would have required action by the Legislature.

Despite the low harvest, the quota set this year by ASMFC will likely remain in place for two more years as planned, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether the American eel should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The issue is likely to be raised at an ASMFC meeting in August, and a decision from the FWS is supposed to be published by Sept. 15, Feigenbaum said.

This year’s low harvest numbers could cut two ways when fisheries managers review the state of the elver resource.

“You can’t win,” he said. “If landings are high, they say there’s too much effort. If landings are low, it’s because of a lack of abundance” of elvers.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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