AUGUSTA — Maine Elver fishermen got a shot of good news last week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that it would not list the American eel as an endangered or threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Elvers are juvenile eels.
“After examining the best scientific and commercial information available regarding past, present and future stressors facing the species,” FWS Assistant Regional Director Sherry White said in a communication published on the Maine Elver Fishermen Association’s Facebook page one day before the listing decision was announced, “The Service determined the eel’s single population is overall stable and not in danger of extinction (endangered) or likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future (threatened).”
The decision drew applause from Maine fisheries regulators and harvesters alike.
“We appreciate the careful deliberation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in reviewing the status of the American eel and remain committed to continued efforts to regulate, manage and improve all life stages of American eels in Maine waters,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a written statement after the formal announcement.
The response from Jeffrey Pierce, former executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association and now a state legislator from Dresden, was more succinct.
“It’s great,” Pierce said on Friday. “The decision gives stability to the industry.”
Last year, according to the DMR, fishing under a statewide quota system established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission – the interstate agency that regulates the eel fisheries – Maine harvesters landed the maximum allowable catch of 9,690 pounds. That was a drop more than 8,000 pounds from 2013, when there was no landings cap.
The value of the fishery dropped from more than $32 million to just under $8.5 million, reflecting both the smaller catch and a lower market price.
Although official figures have yet to be released by the DMR, industry sources say that this year’s landings appear to be somewhat more than 5,000 pounds. The reason for the decline, according to Pierce and others, is primarily that the brutal winter kept water temperatures in Maine streams extremely low – and the elvers away – until well after the 10-week fishing season began in March.
Last week’s announcement marked the second time in less than a decade that the FWS decided the American eel did not need ESA protection. The first decision came in 2007.
A California conservation group renewed its listing petition in 2010. In August 2012, it sued the FWS for its failure to rule on the petition within the required 12-month period. The action was settled with the service agreeing to file its findings by Sept. 30 of this year. The FWS filed its decision Sept. 29.
“We obviously applaud USF and W and NOAA for going over this thoroughly for the second time,” Pierce said.
According to the FWS, the service studied both scientific and commercial data “regarding past, present and future stressors facing the species.” Based on that study, the FWS “determined the eel’s single population is overall stable and not in danger of extinction (endangered) or likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future (threatened).”
That is so even though the eel population is smaller than it was a century ago and large areas of eel habitat have been destroyed.
“While individual American eels still face local mortality from harvest and hydroelectric facilities, these stressors are not threatening the overall species,” according to the FWS. “Additionally, these effects have been, and are being, reduced by harvest quotas and mechanisms restoring eel passage up and downstream.”
In Maine, the imposition of a landings quota and the use of a magnetic swipe card system that allows the DMR to keep track of elver landings in real time are part of a DMR-led effort to ensure the continued viability of the eel population.
According to the department, the swipe cards have “dramatically decreased the incidents of illegal harvesting.” The individual quota system has “drastically reduced the black-market for illegal eels caught and transported to Maine.”
The swipe card system is “working well,” Pierce said. “It’s become a model for other industries.”
According to Pierce, Maine also has “opened up a lot of spawning habitat” that was long unavailable to eels because of dams and other development, and “continues to work on (fish) passage and dam removal” issues.
With the threat of an ESA listing behind it, the Maine Elver Fishermen Association plans to send a delegation to the next ASMFC meeting with the eel fishery on the agenda. One goal will be to see the state’s landings quota for elvers increased.
“The quota didn’t make eels viable,” Pierce said. “The eels are viable.”