HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A last-minute maneuver in the legislature followed quickly by a green light from a regional governing body is putting the lucrative eel industry within Connecticut's reach.
Days after a deal by state lawmakers cleared the way for eel fisheries in Connecticut, a 15-state regional agency proposed to ease rules allowing broader access to the multimillion-dollar global eel market.
Rep. Craig Miner, who engineered the legislative deal, is a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a group from Maine to Florida. David Simpson, director of Marine Fisheries in the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, also is a commissioner.
Fisheries for baby eel, or elver, operate only in South Carolina and Maine. In Maine, the catch has generated $32 million for each of the past two years. That monopoly needs to end, Simpson said.
"Why is it so overwhelmingly concentrated in one state? If we're going to have fisheries, let's talk about opening it more fairly," he said.
The Atlantic states group voted Monday to propose that states may open certain eel fisheries if they can show habitats have improved, said Kate Taylor, senior fisheries management plan coordinator. 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.
Final regulations could be approved as early as this summer following hearings and public comment.
Simpson said Connecticut fisheries would not lead to an overall rise in eel catches on the East Coast. The catch would instead be redistributed among the states, he said.
State legislation opening Connecticut waters to eel fishing passed the House and Senate minutes before the annual session ended Wednesday night. State Rep. Ted Moukawsher opposed it and said he was angry at the maneuvering that got the bill over the finish line.
"I knew there was a lot of pressure on eels because of the price paid for them," the Democratic lawmaker said. "It's like a gold rush."
Lori Brown, executive director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to veto it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether the American eel warrants federal protection, proof that the Connecticut measure is bad legislation, environmentalists say.
A spokesman would not say if Malloy will sign the legislation.
Simpson said eel fisheries will not open for years as Connecticut drafts regulations, schedules public hearings and submits a proposal to the regional organization.
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 tends to be profitable, with catch prices as high as $2,500 a pound, though it's fallen to a still lofty $700 a pound, Taylor said.
Miner, a member of the House Republican minority, kicked off a three-hour debate Wednesday night on unrelated legislation imposing a moratorium on natural gas drilling waste coming to Connecticut. He said he sought to clarify what wells could be drilled.
The regulation of so-called fracking waste was a priority of the legislature's Democratic leadership that wanted to halt the talkathon.
Sen. Edward Meyer, Senate chairman of the Environment Committee, said 15 minutes before the session was to end, supporters of the gas drilling waste measure in the House "came dashing to the Senate and said the fracking bill is dead unless you pass eels."
The legislation opening Connecticut waters to eel fishing was immediately put up for a vote, Meyer said, and passed the Senate 36-0. With six minutes remaining to the session, the fracking measure passed the House, 128-19.