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Regulators balk at chance to set elver quota

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Federal regulators balked Thursday at a chance to set a new quota for Maine's lucrative baby eel fishery.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's American Eel Management Board met in Alexandria, Virginia, to vote on recommendations for the fishery, which has grown in volume and value in recent years, but deadlocked without reaching a decision. Federal officials have said the recommendation could range from keeping the status quo of a nearly 6-ton quota to closing the fishery.

In addition to a new quota, the board is also considering enacting harvest allowances for aquaculture purposes. The board will revisit the issue with a potential final vote in late October, a spokeswoman said.

The fisheries commission said in a statement that American eel populations in U.S. waters are depleted because of a combination of overfishing, habitat loss, changes in predation, environmental changes, contaminants and disease. Turbines have also killed eels, the statement said.

Jeffrey Pierce, director of the Maine Elver Fishermen's Association, said he is hopeful there will be an elver season in 2015. The state's elver season began April 6 and ended May 31 this year.

"There's still a lot of noise that it should be closed," Pierce said.

Maine's elver fishermen caught about 10,000 pounds of the baby eels against a quota of 11,749 pounds last season. This was the first year in which a quota applied.

The fishermen's catch topped 18,000 pounds in 2012 and 2013. The market's growth spurred concerns from state and federal regulators about overfishing. The fishery grew in value to $1,866.72 per pound in 2012 after previously exceeding $350 per pound only once in 18 years of commercial fishing, state data show.

Elvers are caught in rivers and sold overseas as seed stock for aquaculture companies in Asia that raise them to maturity and sell them as food. Only Maine and South Carolina have elver seasons in the U.S., and Maine's is much larger.

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