Casting about for solutions to a slippery problem

Maine opts to limit its eel-fishing industry after 1998's riverbankfrenzy.

Bristol, Maine - Where the saltwater meets the fresh at the Pemaquid River in Maine, there's a commodity so valuable it has caused fists and scuba-flippers to fly.

The "liquid gold" that draws Maine fishermen to this spot each year is a tiny creature called an elver. Most Americans have probably never heard of them, but when the market is right, a pound of these baby eels sold to an Asian fish farm can fetch $350.

In a state where fishermen are struggling and personal income ranks 41st in the nation, that kind of money can make the difference between staying afloat or capsizing.

Indeed, some 2,300 elver fishers mobbed Maine riverbanks last year, prompting closer state regulation when the season opened this year March 22. So many people wanted to get in on the action that state officials used bullhorns to supervise crowds jockeying to find the best spot for their nets along coastal rivers.

"It was just unreal," says Pat Bryant, spokeswoman for the recently formed Elver Association and an industry pioneer.

This year, Ms. Bryant fought to keep lawmakers from shutting down the fishery altogether, and she is one of only 719 people who got licenses to fish for elvers. In a regulatory experiment, Maine cut the season from three months to two and now allows only two nets per person instead of five.

That move cut down on the crowds but not on the tension. Many people who had paid as much as $700 for a net are irate at being excluded. And the sense of competition is still strong enough that some camped out in pickup trucks days before the official "season opening," to be assured of getting a good spot.

In a torrent of pounding rain on opening day, the elver fishers at this landing in Bristol spent hours fiddling with equipment and strategizing with friends about where to anchor their nets. Finally, at noon, the catch began.

Bryant stayed on the ledge to cast her net. Others, in waterproof overalls, waded in. And some immersed themselves. Gary Coffin, who fishes with his father and brothers, had wrapped duct tape around his wrists to keep the frigid water out of his wet suit. But he unfurled a black net with his bare hands. Within minutes, about 30 nets were anchored in the river, their brightly colored floats squirming along the surface like giant versions of the finger-length creatures they trap.

It takes a handful of about 2,500 eels to make a pound. During the first week of the season, a pound sold for about $45, but the price is expected to rise as buyers secure orders. When fewer people were in the business, a net sometimes caught 50 pounds a night, but these days, five is more typical.

American eels are fished at various life stages. They spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic, and the offspring become elvers when they migrate back to fresh water. It can take eight to 25 years for them to reach adulthood.

Only three states besides Maine - South Carolina, Florida, and Connecticut - allow elver fishing. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, is prosecuting people who are part of a massive, illegal elver-fishing industry, says Adam O'Hara, an agency spokesman in Hadley, Mass. Elvers are food for other species, such as cod, and the agency is alarmed about a decline in the adult eel population, he says.

Bryant is part of a group that's struggled since the 1970s to establish elver fishing, which Maine fishermen can do in the months between other fishing seasons.

She worries that state lawmakers will eventually ban large funnel-shaped fyke nets, in favor of allowing only hand-held dip nets. The fyke net, she says, "sits there and fishes unobtrusively." Some people use dip nets in Maine, but New Jersey had a dip-net-only fishery and closed it because all the walking along the riverbank "annihilated the entire shore," she says.

On the other side of the debate are people who say allowing only dip nets would be more fair. Bill Sheldon, who in 1972 published original research on catching Maine elvers, says: "Rather than have a fishery that uses a highly efficient piece of gear like a fyke net, it would be better to allow more participants with less-efficient gear."

SOME in the industry are impressed that Maine lawmakers were able to sort through conflicting opinions and devise a policy - even if only a temporary one. "They did more in 12 days on the eeling than they've done in 12 years on the lobstering," says Marvin Farrin, a fourth-generation Maine fisherman.

The new rules have meant a sacrifice for his family, though. His wife, Lisa, and their son had to give up licenses because only people who fished during all of the past three years get to fish for elvers this year.

Still, the Farrin family hopes to catch eels together again in the future. "I'd like to hold on to some of the traditions of fishing," Mr. Farrin says. He would also like to see more research and domestic eel farms, but he isn't holding his breath for eel to become a big seller in his hometown. Most Mainers are content for this local catch to turn into a delicacy on the other side of the world.

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