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Prospect Harbor, Maine at the height of the elver goldrush 1998.

BANGOR — The storied rush for elvers — baby eels — a decade ago, is a likely culprit for any decline in eel populations seen today, agreed the three eel fishermen who attended a sparse hearing on whether interstate management of the American eel should be changed.

“It’s plain and simple,” said Jerry Braley, who uses weirs to fish for full-grown eels in the Sebasticook. “If you go killing all the calves, you’re not going to have any cows. It’s not the guy who’s fishing for 50 bait eels that’s the problem. The problem is somewhere else. We’re feeling the effect of what happened in 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995.”

Another eel fisherman agreed.

“They were lugging elvers out tons at a time,” he said.

The three men said the state should impose a moratorium on fishing for elvers.

During the height of the elver harvest, 2,800 fishermen in Maine had licenses to go after the baby eels. A lottery system, one of a number of stringent regulations rolled in by the late ‘90s to prevent overharvesting, has capped the number of fishermen at 827.

The problem, said Braley, is that when the price of elvers goes back up, fishermen will jump right back in.

“It will take years to recover from the effect” of the ‘90s rush, a fisherman said. “I’m getting blamed for those guys, if you’re taking away my fishery.”

The consensus was that the adult eel fishery should be left alone. At the moment, the men agreed, low market price is pretty much keeping fishermen from harvesting. Eels are going for $1.35 per pound this year, compared with $4 per pound or more in recent years.

Eel fishing occurs in two sectors.

In Maine, there are 28 fishermen who set pots in tidewater and freshwater to catch yellow eels ranging in size from 8-14 inches to sell for bait. The fishing season is regulated by Mother Nature: eels become inactive when water temperature drops below 50 degrees; they must be actively feeding in order to make pots effective.

There are 22 fishermen who are permitted to set weirs to catch sexually-mature silver eels, ranging in size from 16 inches to 3 feet and weighing up to 10 pounds, as they migrate back downstream for their journey back to spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Silver eels are sold mostly in Europe for food. In the past few years, only three or four weir fishermen have been active, due to low prices. The season is set from Aug. 15-Nov. 15, the time when eels migrate.

The fishermen agreed that potting on lakes can pose a risk to the health of the stock because it can clean out several year-classes in a short time.

Coastwide, commercial landings have declined dramatically, from a high of 1.8 million pounds, in 1985, to a low of 649,000 pounds, in 2002. Most eel landings come from Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, while commercial fishing for elvers occurs in Maine, South Carolina and Florida.

Stock status is poorly understood, due to limited and non-uniform assessment efforts.

In addition, fishermen said, adult eels, living for many years to maturity in lakes and estuaries and destined to become spawners when they migrate back to the ocean, are at risk, due to pollution.

Braley said the state should make a push to get fish passages through all the dams “and not take 10 years to do it.”

Fishermen agreed they’ve seen some decline in the eel fishery, but not enough to warrant a major change in the management plan.

Eels are a challenging species to manage coastwide, due to their wide range of habitats. A catadromous species, eel spend most of their lives in freshwater or estuarine environments, but return to the ocean to reproduce. Adult eels migrate to spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, a large portion of the western Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas, and south of Bermuda. The Gulf Stream then transports and disperses fertilized eggs and larval eel along the East Coast, from Florida to Maine.

As elvers, or “glass” eels, they move into brackish or fresh water systems and become pigmented. By age 2, the pigmented “black boys” turn yellow. When yellow eels reach maturity, up to 20 or 25 years later, they migrate downstream toward the Sargasso spawning grounds. During migration, yellow eels metamorphose into the adult silver eel phase.

The commercial fishery has traditionally supplied eel for the regional and European food and bait market. Elvers are sold to Asian countries, where they are cultured to marketable size.

Several factors contribute to the risk that heavy harvesting may adversely affect populations: eels mature slowly, living long lives up to 30 or more years; glass eels aggregate seasonally to migrate; yellow eel harvest is a cumulative stress, over multiple years, on the same-year class; and all eel mortality is pre-spawning mortality.

Their habitat is also limited by dam blockage of stream access, pollution, and nearshore habitat destruction. It is estimated that fish dependent on access to Atlantic coastal watersheds may be hindered from reaching up to 84 percent of upstream habitats.

In Maine, the yellow and silver eel fishery occurs in both inland and tidal waters, using pots and weirs. Elsewhere, large eel fisheries are primarily coastal pot fisheries with little management and few regulations, other than a license requirement and, in some states, minimum size limit or gear and mesh size restrictions.

Eel fisheries are conducted during the period of natural availability, and few, if any, states have defined fishing seasons.

Few states have comprehensive regulations for elver fishing, although Maine has become a leader in modernizing its elver regulations, in response to the mid-’90s rush set off by a strong Far East market and high prices that soared to $350 per pound.

Maine drafted increasingly stringent regulations to prevent overharvesting, including the current March 15-June 15 fishing season, along with limits on the number, placement, and method of operation of gear units available to each fisherman.

The ASMFC’s recently-issued public information document provides an overview of current knowledge of eel, including stock status, a description of commercial and recreational fisheries and a suite of research and management issues.

Comments must be submitted by June 10, 5 p.m. Copies of the PID are available at www.asmfc.org under Breaking News, or 202-289-6400.