State regulators are shutting down Maine’s elver fishery two weeks early, after investigators with the Maine Marine Patrol found what they believe is evidence of illegal sales. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

State regulators are shutting down the lucrative elver fishery two weeks early, after Maine Marine Patrol investigators concluded that off-the-books sales of the valuable commodity have pushed the statewide catch beyond the legal limit.

Elver dealers and fishermen are supposed to use an electronic swipe-card system that allows accurate, real-time tracking by state regulators, but some dealers are paying less than the going rate – around $2,400 per pound – for cash sales of the baby eels, which are raised to adulthood at aquaculture facilities in Asia and sold to the seafood market as a delicacy.

“The future of this lucrative fishery is now in question,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a prepared statement. “We clearly have to consider additional measures to ensure that Maine can remain compliant with (catch limits), that we can continue to protect our state’s valuable marine resources, and that we can hold accountable anyone who chooses to squander the opportunity those resources represent.”

The decision is a blow to the reputation of the fishery, said Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, who founded the group five years ago to push back against efforts to shut the fishery down completely. Since then, Young said he’s worked hard to drive out bad actors, and he had planned to advocate at meetings with federal regulators next month for a catch limit of more than 11,000 pounds, a reset to the 2014 level.

“They couldn’t dispute all the good work we’ve done cleaning the fishery up,” Young said, “but now here we are facing another crisis, I guess you could say.”

Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for DMR, declined to offer many specifics about the investigation, but a statement by the department indicates that multiple dealers and fishermen could be charged. Nichols declined to identify potential targets of the investigation or give a timeline for any arrests.

It also was unclear how Marine Patrol investigators discovered the illegal sales, or how dealers and fishermen were conducting the business outside the view of regulators.

EMERGENCY RULE IN EFFECT

A plastic bag holds baby eels caught near Brewer. State regulators are shutting down the elver fishery Thursday, two weeks before its scheduled June 7 close. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Now that the fishery has been shut down, federal officials are likely to keep a close watch on the state’s investigation and its outcome.

The statewide landing limit for elvers is set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The interstate regulatory body limited the eel catch in Maine to 9,688 pounds for the 2018 season.

Although the eels are not considered endangered – an effort to protect them failed in 2015 – the fishery is highly regulated. Fishing for baby eels is legal only along a single waterway in South Carolina, the Cooper River, and statewide in Maine.

As of May 22, Maine fishermen had logged through the swipe-card system landings of 9,091 pounds, according to the state. This means state regulators and investigators believe that at least 600 pounds of illegally harvested elvers have slipped by regulators’ scales.

Under the emergency rule, licensed eel fishermen may not take elvers after 6 a.m. Thursday, but may possess and sell elvers until noon that day. Licensed dealers may buy elvers until noon, and may not possess legally purchased elvers after 6 p.m. next Tuesday. The fishery’s season was originally scheduled to end June 7.

TRACKING SYSTEM IN PLACE SINCE 2014

At stake for fishermen are incredible amounts of cash.

In 2015, the average per-pound price for elvers surpassed $2,000. In 2017, the per-pound price dropped to just over $1,300. This year, prices were trending on the high end.

Fishermen have already sold more than $20 million worth of the eels, which have sold in recent weeks for around $2,400 per pound at the dock, the Associated Press reported.

Fishermen who have been caught poaching the eels or underreporting their catch have been found to have earned tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars from the trade.

In 2012, an Ellsworth man, Danny Deraps, earned $700,000 from selling glass eels, but reported less than half of that income on his taxes. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion and theft in 2014.

And earlier this month, a federal judge in Portland sentenced three men who pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to illegal eel trafficking. One of them, William Sheldon, 71, of Woolwich, formerly a licensed Maine elver dealer, was sentenced to six months in prison for illegally trafficking nearly $550,000 worth of illegally obtained glass eels.

Another man, Timothy Lewis, 46, of Phippsburg, was sentenced to six months in prison for trafficking nearly $500,000 in illegal eels. The third man received one year of probation.

The investigation into Lewis and Sheldon was part of a larger operation that eventually led to the conviction of 21 people for the illegal trafficking of roughly $5 million in eels.

The swipe-card system was put in place in 2014, which was also the first year of a statewide quota, among several changes enacted in recent years to improve oversight of the lucrative business.

The fishery was worth about $12 million last year, but has been worth as much as $40 million annually, depending on the prices the eels fetch overseas.

Dealers now pay fishermen with checks, not cash, and dealers are required to keep meticulous records that DMR officials can comb through to look for inconsistencies or other signs of malfeasance.

A NEW YORK YANKEES ANALOGY

Max Feigenbaum, an elver buyer with Maine Eel Trade & Aquaculture who operates a buying station out of a temporary structure on Commercial Street, said he’s been in business for six years, and watched as the swipe-card system came online.

Feigenbaum said he’s had nothing but good experiences with it so far. The early end to the season is a disappointment, and Feigenbaum said he feels for fishermen who still had not met their catch limit.

“Most of the fishermen and the buyers take it very seriously,” he said of the regulations. “There are some fishermen who get their quota late. It’s unfair to them. It’s like punishing Derek Jeter for A-Rod using steroids. I’m sure a lot of them were counting on a paycheck.”

The baby eels that are harvested in Maine are part of a biological life cycle, and an economic enterprise, that spans the globe.

An eel’s life starts as an egg spawned by an adult in the Sargasso Sea near the Bahamas. The larvae then drift along Atlantic Ocean currents and eventually metamorphose into miniature transparent eels. The so-called glass eels eventually reach the coast and swim upstream into freshwater rivers and streams from the Caribbean to Canada.

For a few brief weeks each spring, fishermen in Maine and South Carolina, the only two states that allow elver fishing, jockey to catch the valuable baby eels, working mostly at night, crouched over nets on muddy stream banks.

After being caught, put in tanks and sold to licensed dealers, the eels are shipped to China and east Asia, where they are raised in captivity and sold in the seafood market as a delicacy.

Although it was once a sleepy fishery, the Maine elver market exploded when foreign stock of the eels dried up, driving up prices and increasing the stakes for fishermen who could earn thousands upon thousands of dollars during the short season.

Now, the license required to legally catch and sell baby eels is coveted. The state granted only 425 elver licenses for the 2018 season, down from previous years. During a lottery in January, when 11 spots were up for grabs, 3,136 people put their name into the hat at least once; many of the entrants paid extra fees to enter their names multiple times in the drawing. By the time the names were selected, the DMR had received more than 8,000 entries.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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