ELLSWORTH — Fisheries regulators voted last week to freeze Maine’s annual landings quota for elvers at its current level, but approved an additional 200-pound quota just for aquaculture.
Maine asked to increase its quota by 20 percent, from the current level of 9,688 pounds to 11,749. Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher cited the state’s efforts over the past several years to improve enforcement of the fishing laws, including implementation of a magnetic swipe card system for harvesters and dealers so the state could track landings on a daily basis.
Despite Maine’s efforts, and the opening of thousands of square miles of eel habitat through dam removal and road culvert improvements, members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted 13-5 to deny the quota increase.
The principal reason appeared to be the difficulty in determining what impact the increased landings would have on what ASMFC scientists characterized as a “depleted” eel stock. Always a difficult calculation, determining the impact taking more juvenile eels out of the water would have on the population is complicated by the fact that it can take eels as long as 20 years to reach maturity.
“I’m impressed with the efforts that Maine has gone through to strengthen the reporting and monitoring of the fishery,” said Roy Miller, a Delaware commissioner. “Nonetheless, our only advice from the stock assessment scientists was that this stock remains depleted, and that we don’t know what the effect of harvest of Maine glass eels will have on the rest.”
While refusing to increase the landings quota for the state’s regular commercial harvesters, the regulators did approve a supplemental 200-pound quota to support a new land-based aquaculture industry in the state, although several commissioners objected that it was inconsistent with the decision to deny the request of an overall quota increase.
The proposal for the additional aquaculture quota came jointly from the state and from American Unagi, an aquaculture startup that hopes to grow eels to marketable size in a land-based facility in Maine. For this year at least, the additional quota would be assigned to harvesters who already have elver fishing licenses and who agree to fish for the company.
Keliher told his fellow ASMFC commissioners that the state would use a swipe card system similar to that used in the commercial harvest to track aquaculture landings.
“With the ASMFC approval for 200 pounds of additional quota dedicated to domestic aquaculture in Maine we are optimistic about the future and growing the connection of the fishery to year-round local aquaculture production,” Sara Radamaker, founder of American Unagi, said in an email Monday.
“The DMR and harvesters have really accomplished a lot of changes to the fishery in recent years, so we are still hopeful that the commercial fishery’s continued efforts towards sustainability through novel fisheries monitoring program, habitat restoration and fisheries surveys will result in an increased quota in coming years.”
According to Keliher, American Unagi is the only entity to apply for quota to harvest elvers for growout in Maine so far. If other applicants surface, he said, DMR would develop a system to allocate the aquaculture quota among them.
Last year, Maine closed its elver fishing season early because of a spate of illegal unrecorded sales by “some very greedy fishermen who didn’t think $3,000 a pound was enough money,” Keliher told his fellow commissioners.
Although the average price was closer to $2,300 per pound, according to DMR figures, the price last spring peaked briefly near $3,000 per pound. As a result of the early closure, Maine landings were nearly 500 pounds lower than the legal quota.