The vote we had expected yesterday at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) spring meeting on new regulations in the increasingly high profile and contentious American eel (Anguilla rostrata) fishery didn’t come after all. While the discussion that was supposed to yield a vote on the new regulations focused on all life stages of the American eel–so-called silver, yellow, and glass–it was the latter life stage, during which time the eels are commonly called elvers, that ultimately hamstrung the ASMFC Eel Management Board. Instead of reaching consensus on how they would manage the fishery, the Eel Management Board formed a working group that will gather more data before the board votes. Another opportunity to vote is not expected until August.
The Life Stages of the American Eel
The American eel begins its life as larvae and then morphs into the glass eel stage of its life cycle at around 200 days. At around 255 days, the glass eels, so named for their transparent appearance, enter estuarine environments and become progressively more pigmented. These eels are what are known as elvers, and they may remain in this life state for three months to a year. During this time, some will enter freshwater and begin migrating upstream, while others will remain in estuaries. The elvers then mature into sexually immature adult eels, which are called yellow eels. The final transition into silver eels occurs in preparation for the long migration back to the species’ spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The larvae will then be swept by ocean currents back to the estuaries and freshwater streams of their parents, and the life cycle will repeat.
American eels can live to be 25 years old and can grow to three feet in length before they return to spawning grounds to spawn and then die.
Maine’s Second Most Valuable Fishery
The elver fishery, the one which really caused the ASMFC Eel Management Board the most consternation, became Maine’s second most valuable fishery last year (behind lobster), with a harvest valued at almost $40 million. The price of a pound of elvers in Maine can now exceeds $2000, and given how relatively easy and inexpensive it is to harvest elvers, most agree better management of the fishery is essential. An elver fishery only exists in Maine and South Carolina.
The elvers command such a high price because of demand in Asia, where the young eels are grown-out to salable size in eel farms before becoming unagi or any one of another highly-prized eel dishes. Given a 2010 moratorium on exporting eels from Europe and the 2011 tsunami’s impact on an already depleted Japanese eel stocks, buyers have increasingly looked to Maine as a source of eels, and they have been willing to pay top dollar. The 2013 eel fishery, which opened on 22 March, will close on 31 May in Maine.
The Maine representatives to the ASMFC would prefer to allow the harvest of smaller elvers to continue at present levels with better reporting (e.g., real-time reporting) and a better understanding of the species based on life-cycle surveys. This position contrasts with the position of those who argue the fishery must be closed to allow the stock to recover. These polarizing positions are the main reason the board did not reach a consensus yesterday.
At the same time fisheries regulators are considering new regulations for the elver fishery, several bills have been introduced in the Maine legislature intent on regulating the elver fishery.
The elver fishery in Maine has been called a “river-to-riches” story and has brought almost unimaginable wealth to an area where many people have been struggling financially. Fishers who have fished in Maine’s elver fishery argue that, based on their first-hand experience on the resource, the fishery is healthy. The Maine Elver Fisherman Association, a group of elver fishers and concerned citizens, argue that closing the fishery would be the wrong move and is not based on the reality of stock health.
The fact that Maine licensed fishermen caught nearly $38 million worth of elvers in 2012 and broke the previous record by more than $30 million in itself provides a different view and we feel that in Maine it is not depleted and it is a positive factor in our state economy.
Many elver fishers in Maine believe the new proposed regulations have more to do with a general move toward greater regulation of fisheries regardless of stock health, as well as an increasing jealousy of the income earned legally from the fishery in Maine.
New Regulations Aimed at Reducing Fishing Mortality
The scope of yesterday’s meeting of the American Eel Management Board, which took place in Alexandria, Virginia, included discussion around everything from a proposed Endangered Species Act Listing to law enforcement issues, but the main attraction was the new regulations: Draft Amendment III. The proposed new regulations are based on the recommendations of a 2012 American Eel Stock Assessment, which recommended that mortality should be reduced on all life stages of American eels.
The coast-wide stock of American eels has been in decline over the past several decades and, in 2012, was declared as depleted. It is estimated that the stock is at or near historically low levels. This is of particular concern given an overfishing determination could not be made through stock assessment, and it was acknowledged that fishing pressure on all but the glass eels has continued to decrease since its height in the 1970s. As American Eel Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Kate Taylor put it in a February meeting, “[T]he current levels of fishing effort may still be too high given the additional stressors affecting the stock such as habitat loss, passage mortality and disease, as well as potentially shifting oceanographic conditions.”
Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar story in fisheries management.
Options for the management of the elver fishery include 1) maintaining the status quo, 2) closing the fishery (either an immediate or delayed closure within five years), 3) development of a glass eel quota (allocated either based on the average landings from 1998 to 2011 or a harvest reduction–see chart). In addition, a number of potential dealer restrictions including 1) requiring a trip-level ticket system for harvesters and dealers, and 2) capping (and even possibly reducing) the number of glass eel dealers or increased dealer licensing requirements.