- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Fishing regulators and industry representatives support a plan for a lottery system to get new fishermen into Maine’s lucrative baby eel fishery, which is a key piece of the sushi supply chain.

Maine is the only state with a significant fishery for baby eels. They can fetch more than $2,000 per pound at the dock, after which they are sold to Asian aquaculture companies for use in food.

A group of lawmakers wants to create a lottery system to allow new people to get into the fishery when other fishermen leave it. Right now, it’s closed, with 419 fishermen searching Maine’s rivers and streams with their nets for the elvers.

The lottery plan faced a public hearing on Monday before the state legislature’s marine resources committee. Fishermen said the lottery is needed because members of the fishery are aging and someone will need to take their place.

“I’d like to see some younger kids get in,” said Darrell Young, who heads the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association. “It’d be a big help.”

State Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher also testified in favor of the proposal. The lottery system would generate revenue the state can use for eel and elver management, he said.

If approved, the lottery system would not apply this year, as the fishery starts too soon. The elver fishing season is limited to the spring, beginning March 22.

“The elver fishery is somewhat unique. It’s a fishery of limited duration,” Keliher said.

The bill would set the number of elver fishing licenses issued each year at 425, not including licenses that are issued to federally recognized Indian tribes, which have members who also fish for elvers. It’s possible thousands of people could apply for the chance to win just a few permits in the lottery because elvers can be extremely valuable.

The elvers are in high demand because they are used to make sushi, and foreign sources of elvers have been difficult to come by in recent years. They were worth nearly $2,200 per pound in 2015 and about $1,450 per pound last year.

The plan faces votes before the marine resources committee and the full Legislature. The committee’s vote could take place within a month.

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