Maine's lucrative baby eel industry will likely face tighter controls this year designed to thwart poaching, as officials consider requiring state law enforcement officers to oversee the packing and shipping of the wriggling critters.
Baby eels, called elvers, are an important part of the worldwide supply chain for Japanese food. Maine fishermen harvest them from rivers and streams every spring, and they are typically worth more than $1,000 per pound (half-kilogram). No other U.S. state has a significant elver fishery.
But poaching has dogged the industry. Last year's season was shut down by state regulators two weeks early after investigators unearthed concerns about illegal sales.
This year, the Maine Department of Marine Resources is looking to add a requirement that elver exporters in the state must notify the Maine Marine Patrol 48 hours before preparing to pack and ship the eels. The officer will witness the weighing and packing of the elvers and then mark the package with a seal that must remain intact and untampered with until the eels reach their destination.
"That is a way to secure the shipment and ensure that the package is not tampered with and elvers illegally harvested will not end up in those shipments," said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the marine resources department.
The state's elver fishery is already tracked using a swipe-card system, and that system will stay in place, Nichols said. The swipe card system is designed to record the weight and value of every sale so the state can make sure no one exceeds quota.
The fishery also has a tight quota of 9,688 pounds (4,394 kilograms) for all of the fishermen who participate.
Interstate regulators shot down a proposal to increase that amount by about 20 percent several months ago. Darrell Young, a Maine elver harvester and the co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said he thinks the trouble with poaching played a big role in the decision not to raise the quota.
"If everybody plays by the rules, they might consider giving us more quota. But it's not going to happen until they start behaving themselves," he said. "Some new rules are going to happen."
The new rules are subject to approval by an advisory committee that is scheduled to meet on March 6. Elver fishing season begins on March 22 and typically runs until early June. The volume of the catch can depend on environmental factors, such as whether rivers in Maine melt enough by early spring to ensure a large haul.
Elvers are typically sold to Asian aquaculture companies, so they can be raised to maturity and used as food, such as in kabayaki, a Japanese eel dish.