BREWER — Opening day for elvers is still six weeks away, but most of the more than two dozen fishermen on hand for a Feb. 10 Department of Marine Resources (DMR) hearing sounded like they could hardly wait for the season to begin. The meeting was to discuss regulations setting the landings quota allocation for 2015.
Last October, fisheries regulators at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Eel Board gave Maine a total annual landings quota of 9,688 pounds of elvers for each of the 2015-2017 fishing seasons. That quota equals the state’s total 2014 elver landings, but cuts 2,061 pounds from the 11,749-pound quota regulators established for last year’s harvest.
Elver fishermen aren’t happy about taking a 13.6 percent reduction in their allowable harvest, but they are apparently resigned to the inevitable. Only two fishermen spoke against the proposed regulations, arguing that forcing everyone to take the same percentage-based cut was unfair to fishermen who were successful last year.
Part of the problem, according to Belfast harvester Tristan Smith, is that a considerable but undisclosed amount of this year’s quota has been allocated to harvesters whose elver licenses have been suspended for fishing violations last season. That quota, he said, should be put back into the fishery and available for harvest.
“Fishermen who filled their quotas are taking a larger hit than those that didn’t,” Bangor harvester Howard Frye told Commissioner Patrick Keliher and the DMR staff running the hearing.
Many elver harvesters also were hoping that ASMFC might give Maine a 25 percent quota addition as a credit for the state’s conservation efforts, said Maine Elver Fishermen Association President Darrell Young of Franklin. That could happen in the future, Keliher said.
The ASMFC board did adopt a program of credits for eel restoration projects, but has not yet approved any resulting changes to Maine’s quota.
Last season, according to the DMR, 887 harvesters were active in the fishery. A total of 371 of them filled their individual quotas.
Hancock fisherman Babe Stanley had a different view of things.
“I think you guys have done a hell of a job,” Stanley told Keliher. “I want to thank you very much. If you guys hadn’t gone to Washington [the October ASMFC meeting was held just outside Washington, D.C.], we wouldn’t have any fishing.”
One issue that generated considerable heat last year seems to be more or less under control – tribal participation in the fishery.
Last winter, a sometimes contentious effort to divide the elver quota between fishermen from the state’s four recognized tribes and the state’s licensed non-tribal fishermen delayed the start of the season. The Legislature allocated 21.9 percent of the ASMFC quota to the tribes.
This year, that formula results in the state’s approximately 436 non-tribal license holders sharing just over 7,566 pounds of quota while some 500 tribal fishermen will share just under 2,122 pounds.
While the Passamaquoddy Nation gets an allocation of about 1,356 pounds, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs has a quota of less than 39 pounds.
“We’re new to the game,” Micmac tribal representative Norman Bernard told Keliher, “but we’d like to get more quota for the tribe.”
The new regulation will implement several other changes to the elver fishery.
Last year, the DMR established a magnetic swipe card system to record the quantity of elvers each harvester delivered to each dealer. This year, the department will require dealers to use similar cards to keep track of all transactions between dealers.
Harvesters also will be able to buy a license this year that will allow them to employ someone to help them with their gear. The helpers may not fish for elvers unless they have their own harvester’s license, but they may assist the license holder with cleaning elvers or fishing gear and may transport elvers if the licensee is present.
The Maine elver fishing season begins March 22 each year and extends through May 31. Cold water temperatures, a consequence of this winter’s heavy snowfall, are likely to delay the start of the season.
Reporter Liz Graves contributed to this story.