Maine's highly lucrative baby eel fishery is being shut down two weeks early due to concerns about illegal sales.
Fishermen seek the elvers in Maine because of the fish's role as seed stock in Asian aquaculture. The Maine Department of Marine Resources announced that it's shutting down the fishery on Thursday morning.
The elver fishery is tightly regulated to deter poaching because of the high value of the baby fish. They're selling for nearly $2,400 per pound at the docks in Maine, the only state with a significant elver fishery.
Maine fishermen had harvested more than 90 percent of the 9,688-pound annual limit as of Wednesday.
Some elver dealers in the state have been paying a cash amount that is much less than the typical price for legally harvested eels, Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the marine department, said an investigation by the Maine Marine Patrol found.
"The future of this lucrative fishery is now in question," state Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher in a statement.
Keliher added that the state will consider additional measures to make sure it remains in compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate authority that manages fisheries.
The Atlantic States commission supports closing the fishery, said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission.
The illegal sales circumvent a swipe-card system used to track elver sales in the state, Nichols said. He said the state's investigation is still ongoing and criminal charges will be filed against dealers and fishermen who bought and sold elvers without using the swipe card system. Nichols also said dealers are required to use a check or cashier's check, and not cash, to purchase elvers.
The closure of the fishery is a blow to law-abiding fishermen, said Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.
"These guys need to be punished," Young said. "Don't punish the guys who are doing good."
Maine has been in contact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department about whether federal laws might have been broken, Nichols said.
A spokeswoman for the federal agency declined to comment. It's in the midst of Operation Broken Glass, an investigation into the illegal trafficking of elvers in several states. That effort has already resulted in several arrests and convictions.