HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Friday vetoed a bill that would have opened Connecticut waters to the multimillion-dollar eel industry, saying it would be premature because federal officials are reviewing whether the American eel is a threatened species.
State lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the bill in the final minutes of this year's legislative session, which ended May 7. The proposal would have eliminated the state's ban and $250 fine on the taking of glass eels and elvers, or baby eels, in state waters, in an effort to help area fishermen struggling amid lobster and fish quota reductions.
"Protecting vulnerable species is of the utmost importance," Malloy said in his veto message to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. "Until and unless it is determined that the American eel will not be on the brink of extinction in the near future, I cannot approve a bill that would prematurely move towards lifting our state restriction on fishing for the young life stages of this species."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether American eels are a threatened species. Catch limits had been imposed because the American eel is at or near historically low levels due to overfishing, habitat loss, predators, contaminants and other threats.
Fisheries for baby eel operate only in South Carolina and Maine, under orders by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a 15-state coastal fishing compact. In Maine, the catch has generated $32 million for each of the past two years.
The tiny translucent eels are valued by dealers who ship them to Asia, where they are used as seed stock in aquaculture facilities. Elver fishing has been very profitable in recent years, with catch prices hitting as high as $2,500 a pound, though prices have fallen to a still-lofty $700 a pound this season.
State Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, who engineered the legislative deal on the eel bill, said he didn't understand the governor's veto. He said the legislation would have allowed the state to apply for some portion of the maximum eel take, and eel fishing would not have been immediately allowed because of a lengthy approval process.
Miner, a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said there are no indications that eels will be going extinct anytime soon, and there is no reason why Connecticut shouldn't compete with other states for the current eel take allowance.
"The lobster fishermen in Long Island Sound are hurting," Miner said. "I saw it as an opportunity for a high-value fishery."