Federal regulators will soon approve rules for next year's Maine baby eel fishing season, which could include changes to the lucrative fishery's quota system.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's American Eel Management Board is considering a host of options for elver fishermen, ranging from closing the fishery to maintaining this year's quota of 11,749 pounds.
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The commission could also reduce the quota to 3,158 pounds, 6,406 pounds or 8,008 pounds, documents state. The board is also considering allocating some of the quota for use in aquaculture.
Elvers, also called glass eels, are sold overseas as seed stock for Asian aquaculture companies that raise them to maturity and sell them as food. Prices topped $1,800 per pound in 2012 and 2013, and the fishery is Maine's second most valuable, behind only lobsters. The elver fishery's growth in recent years has prompted concerns about possible overfishing.
Fishermen want to keep the quota high because a critical mass of the tiny eels is necessary for Maine's market to be viable, said Darrell Young, an Ellsworth-based elver fisherman. In the U.S., elvers are only fished commercially in Maine and South Carolina.
"China wouldn't even want to deal with us," Young said. "It would kill it."
Regulations are being crafted as the fishery grows in value. Before the spikes in 2012 and 2013, prices previously exceeded $350 per pound only once in 18 years of commercial fishing. The state hasn't yet published final figures for the 2014 season, but fishermen reported prices closer to $500 to $1,000 per pound — still much higher than the 1990s and 2000s.
Maine's elver fishermen caught about 10,000 pounds of the baby eels last season, the first in which a quota applied.
The eel management board is set to approve the new quota, and potentially other rules, on Oct. 27. A key federal panel will provide recommendations to the board in about a week.
The board is "considering the economic importance of the glass eel fishery, especially in Maine," said Kate Taylor, eel fishery management plan coordinator with the fisheries commission.
Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols said the state is advocating for the status quo, citing the success of the quota and a new swipe card system in managing the fishery this year. The state's elver season ran from April 6 to May 31 this year.