- Associated Press - Sunday, April 6, 2014

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - With the opening of elver season Sunday, fishermen for the first time are using electronic swipe cards to record sales of the baby eels, a move the state says will streamline data, enforce new catch limits and prevent illegal transactions.

In a fishery best known for its ballooned prices, marine resource officials say the new system is crucial to applying tighter regulations to avoid overfishing and cut down on poaching.

Alaska is the only other state that uses the swipe cards, according to marine resource department officials in both states and the developer of the Maine system.

Unlike the combination of paper reports and online forms previously used, the new system is more automated, said Claude Petersen, owner of Bluefin Data LLC, which developed the software for Maine.

It shares some similarities with programs Bluefin has helped developed in four other states and the Caribbean. But none of those systems use swipe cards, which reduce the number of steps in a transaction.

Petersen said the Maine system also keeps fishermen “on the straight and narrow” by helping the state monitor catches more closely, avoiding illegal elver sales and restricting how sales can be completed.

Elvers prices skyrocketed to $2,000 per pound in recent years as foreign sources dried up. Caught in Maine rivers, elvers are sold overseas as seed stock for aquaculture companies that raise them to maturity and sell them as food.

The swipe cards have magnetic strips similar to those on credit cards that are encoded for each elver fisherman. To sell their catch, fishermen are required to slide the cards in state-issued readers supplied to buyers of the toothpick-size eels.

That system prints a receipt and files some of the information that certified buyers are required to send to the state online.

As a result of the new system, “we’re going to be seeing data every day,” said David Libby, director of the biological monitoring division of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. Past systems meant the department received data on a weekly or monthly basis.

Libby said the swipe card system would keep the state from repeating a scenario in its now-closed shrimp fishery in which fishermen exceeded their quota while the state was still tabulating catches.

However, he said there was still the potential for glitches once the season started.

Fishermen have individual quotas for the first time this year based on their catches in recent years, which the state tracks. As fishermen reach their caps, their cards will be deactivated, Libby said.

The individual quotas were a sticking point for one American Indian tribe, the Passamaquoddies, which said it had to change tribal law last Friday to comply with individual catch limits just before the season started.

The decision removed a cloud from the start of the season, which had already been delayed two weeks as the state issued swipe cards and implemented new rules. Last year, the Passamaquoddy tribe issued more elver permits than state law allowed, leading to the arrest of several tribal fishermen by game wardens. Charges were ultimately dropped.

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