Maine fisheries regulators want to begin licensing elver exporters as part of the state’s effort to tighten oversight of a fishery in which a pound of the tiny, squirming eels can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is preparing legislation that would require individuals who ship the baby eels overseas to purchase a $5,000 exporter’s license. The state already licenses both elver fishermen and dealers, so DMR officials said the exporter license will ensure the state is monitoring every aspect of an industry that has drawn poachers and federal scrutiny in recent years.

“We want to understand more closely what is going on in that next step of the commercial chain,” DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said Friday of the bill, which will be considered in the current legislative session. “There is always a possibility (for fraud). But what we are trying to do is close as many loopholes as possible.”

Maine fishermen harvested nearly 9,700 pounds of elvers in 2014 worth an estimated $8.4 million, according to preliminary figures from DMR. Although down from roughly 18,000 pounds valued at $33 million the year before, the 2014 elver catch still translated into an average of $867 per pound for the translucent, noodle-like eels, which are netted as they swim upstream and then shipped to aquaculture operations in Asia.

Maine is one of only two states that allow fishing for elvers, also known as “glass eels,” and is the predominant source of elver exports from the U.S. After lingering in obscurity for years, Maine’s elver fishery drew international attention in 2012 when huge demand for elvers in Asia combined with limited worldwide supplies drove prices above $2,000 a pound in Maine.

Regulators were forced to play catch-up following the explosion of the industry in Maine, however.

Armed elver dealers often operating out of dark parking lots (elvers typically move upstream at night) shelled out thousands of dollars in cash to fishermen. Poachers and unscrupulous buyers drawn by the promise of easy money moved into the state, raising concerns about the sustainability of the fishery as well as the safety of those involved.

In a first-of-its-kind program, Maine began requiring all licensed fishermen and elver buyers – or dealers – to begin using electronic swipe cards last year that reported all transactions to the state. The electronic system allowed DMR to monitor the fishery almost in real-time and helped fishermen track their progress toward their individual quotas.

But the state has no registration or licensing requirements for exporters who buy elvers either from dealers or directly from fishermen. While exporters must report their exports to federal agencies, requiring exporters to use the same swipe card system as fishermen and dealers will allow DMR to keep track of the chain of custody in one system.

VIOLATIONS DOWN

DMR credits the electronic monitoring system instituted last year with helping to reduce the number of elver-related violations – whether for poaching or for gear infractions – from 371 in 2013 to just 71 in 2014. Nichols said the department hopes the addition of an exporter license will help address concerns raised by neighboring states that have seen increased poaching, as well as by the federal regulators looking for assurances that the fishery is carefully monitored.

“The intent is to create a license that will help us to more efficiently manage this resource,” Nichols said. “We are trying to build on the successes of the management measures put in place last year.”

One of Maine’s largest exporters, Mitch Feigenbaum of Delaware Fish Valley Co., said he is in full support of the concept of an exporter license although he still wants to see the final language of the bill. Representing Pennsylvania on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Feigenbaum said he argued on several occasions that Maine’s electronic record-keeping system needed to extend to exporters as well as fishermen and dealers.

Feigenbaum credited DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher for “confronting illegal activities head-on” and for following up on a pledge to extend the system to exporters.

“With a real-time swipe card system for exporters, the state and (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service would have in place every tool necessary to monitor the movement of glass eels from ‘shore to plane,'” Feigenbaum wrote in an email. “As long as they share and coordinate their review of the information, this industry should see an unprecedented level of integrity. Nobody likes unnecessary government regulation, but in the case of a valuable public resource that is the subject to substantial conservation concerns, active management like DMR is demonstrating with its swipe card systems is absolutely vital to the fishery’s survival.”

Maine’s baby eel fishery is being closely watched by those who want stronger protections of eels and by other coastal states that would like to grab a piece of a fishery that skyrocketed to Maine’s second most-valuable fishery after lobster.

A SWIPE AT CONSERVATION

Although the American eel is commonly found in coastal rivers and streams throughout North America, its early life cycle remains somewhat a mystery. Eels are born in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, although scientists are still unsure of the exact location of the spawning grounds. Currents carry the tiny eels to the Eastern Seaboard, where the growing glass eels eventually make their way up coastal streams. Those that survive the journey to Maine will often spend 15 to 20 years in a freshwater environment before returning to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.

Under pressure from environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether the American eel should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing would likely shut down commercial elver fishing in Maine.

Despite a few minor technological hiccups, DMR’s swipe card system was widely hailed as a success during its first year of use. Fishermen praised the system for helping them keep an accurate, official tally of their catch while federal regulators with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service have eyed the system as a potential model for other fisheries. The required move from cash to check payments was also viewed as a positive move, both in terms of safety and record-keeping.

In the fall, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to allocate Maine fishermen a quota of 9,688 pounds during the 2015 season, which will begin in early spring.

That is the same amount harvested in 2014, when fishermen failed to fill the 11,749-pound quota because the spring elver runs began later than normal following the unusually frigid winter. But Maine fishermen were pleased that the 2015 quota was not cut.

Darrell Young, an Eastbrook fisherman who is co-director of the Maine Elver Fisherman Association, said he was pleased to hear that exporters would be required to use the swipe card system that worked well last year.

“I think it’s a good step,” Young said. “Those swipe cards keep track of what is going on and I think it would be a benefit for the fishermen.”

The exporter’s license proposal does not yet have a bill number because DMR officials were still working with legislative staff on the final language.