PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- Maine's lucrative glass eel fishery will be allowed to remain open next year as long as state officials devise a plan to cut its 2014 catch by at least 25 percent, regulators agreed Wednesday.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's eel management board voted to postpone passing new regulations that would go into effect in 2014, opting instead to vote on new rules next spring that would be effective in 2015, said commission spokeswoman Tina Berger.
In the interim, state officials will work with eel fishermen and dealers in Maine to create a plan that results in next spring's catch being 25 percent to 40 percent smaller than this year's spring harvest.
The regulatory debate has been closely watched by Maine fishermen who catch the tiny translucent eels, known as elvers, in nets as they swim up coastal rivers and by dealers who export the alien-looking creatures to Asia, where they are used as seed stock in aquaculture facilities.
Elver fishing has become very profitable the past two years, with catch prices spiking to more than $2,000 a pound. The total value of the catch was $38.8 million in 2012, making it the state's second most valuable fishery, behind lobster.
Although Maine fishermen will face new rules next spring that cut down on their catch, for the most part they're pleased with the vote, said Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association. At previous meetings, some eel management board members wanted to shut down the elver fishery.
"At least this board was willing to listen to keep this glass eel fishery open instead of 'We want it closed,'" Pierce said by phone from the board meeting in St. Simons Island, Ga.
Regulators have been developing new regulations for glass, yellow and silver eels, which are all the same eel but at different life stages, along the entire East Coast from Maine to Florida. New regulations are needed because the stock is considered depleted.
All East Coast states have yellow eel fisheries, and New York has a small silver eel fishery. Only Maine and South Carolina have commercial glass eel fisheries, but Maine's annual harvest is about 15 times larger.
Most of the attention on eels has focused on Maine because of the sky-high prices the past two years.
The eel management board is made of members from all East Coast states, and it was Maine's delegation that put forth the proposal to postpone passage of overarching new regulations until next spring and make sure that all harvest and scientific data are updated through 2013.
Maine fishery officials will tour the coast and meet with fishermen and dealers to craft a plan to reduce the harvest, said Terry Stockwell, chairman of the eel management board and director of external affairs with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
"It could be gear restrictions. It could be spatial restrictions. It could be time restrictions," he said. "We're going to leave that up to industry."
The plan will be reviewed by the eel management board at a meeting in Alexandria, Va., in February.