AUGUSTA — Members of the Passamaquoddy tribe met with state legislators and the LePage administration Wednesday to address a dispute over management of Maine’s lucrative elver fishery.
Both sides said the discussions were positive, although neither one would say how they plan to resolve an issue that has pitted the state’s regulation of the fishery against claims by Passamaquoddy leaders that the tribe has sovereign rights to manage elvers on tribal land.
The dispute reflects the value of elvers. Demand for the baby eels in Asia, combined with restrictions on European exports and a shortage in Japan, have made market prices soar.
At the height of demand last year, elver fishermen were earning as much as $2,600 a pound for the tiny eels. State officials estimated that the 2012 catch of 18,000 pounds was worth $40 million.
In 2010, Maine’s elver exports were just over 3,150 pounds, valued at $585,000.
A law passed recently by the Legislature allowed the Passamaquoddies to issue 200 elver fishing licenses. State officials later learned that the tribe has issued more than 500.
The dispute ignited Sunday when law enforcement officers tried to check Passamaquoddy fishermen’s elver licenses in Pembroke. The officers later abandoned the effort, citing safety concerns, because of protests by the Passamaquoddies.
Gov. Paul LePage’s marine resources commissioner, Patrick Keliher, later went to Pembroke with wardens and law enforcement officers. They confiscated gear from those who were fishing without valid licenses and threatened to issue summonses.
Keliher later told tribal leaders that the state would invalidate 150 state-issued elver licenses. He also warned that the Passamaquoddies’ actions threatened the vitality of the fishery and said that federal authorities could shut it down.
On Wednesday, Keliher met with tribal leaders at the State House. He said the two sides found “middle ground” that could lead to an agreement on managing the fishery.
Newell Lewey, a spokesman for the Passamaquoddy tribal council, agreed.
“We came to an understanding, and I think the discussions are ongoing,” Lewey said. “The details will remain within the (Department of Marine Resources) until there’s an agreement.”
It’s not yet clear how the two sides will reach an agreement.
Under a federally mandated management plan, Maine is limited to 744 licenses and 1,242 pieces of gear. The state has issued about 400 licenses this year and allocated 150 to the tribe. But the tribe has refused to abide by the limit, saying it has sold 525 licenses.
Lewey said the Passamaquoddies set a strict limit on catches by members. The entire group of license holders cannot exceed 3,600 pounds, a ceiling the tribe has set to sustain the fishery, he said.
Keliher said Wednesday that enforcing such quotas can be difficult. However, he said, the state now has a better understanding of the tribe’s management plan, and an agreement is attainable.
Lewey participated Monday in a conference call with LePage. He said later that the governor threatened reprisals against the tribe if its members did not comply with the state’s elver regulations.
The incident threatened to reignite conflicts between the state and the Passamaquoddies. The tribe’s previous attempts to exercise sovereignty have produced standoffs with the threat of physical confrontations.
A standoff loomed Tuesday evening when tribal leaders reaffirmed their commitment to managing the elver fishery the way they always have.
“We are almost two weeks into the elver fishing season this year, but the Passamaquoddy tribe has been ‘in’ this conversation for over 500 years,” said a news release by the tribe.
The release referred to several historic treaties, dating as far back as 1727, and said nothing in those treaties abrogated the tribe’s traditional hunting and fishing rights.
“We can work on the (management) plan, we welcome collaboration, but we do not ask for permission, and we cannot accept oversight,” the release said. “We will always be Passamaquoddy. We will always fish. This is inalienable.”
The LePage administration has disputed Lewey’s characterization of Monday’s conference call, but Lewey declined to revisit that topic, saying instead that Wednesday’s discussions had been productive.
“I think we made a lot of headway today,” he said.
Additionally, Fred Moore III, the fisheries committee coordinator for the tribe, told lawmakers on the Marine Resources Committee that Passamaquoddies support an emergency bill to increase penalties for violating elver regulations.
The bill, referred to the committee Feb. 21, was submitted at Keliher’s request. Lewey told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday that the bill is designed to single out the tribe for punishment.
But Keliher told the committee that the bill isn’t a result of the Passamaquoddy dispute. He said it was prompted by issues the state had identified previously.
The bill, L.D. 632, would set a mandatory $2,000 penalty for violating state rules governing the harvest of elvers. It also would make violating those rules a criminal offense that could result in one year in jail.
Violating elver regulations is now a civil offense with fines of as much as $2,000.
In a letter to the committee dated March 27, Keliher wrote that courts that were unfamiliar with the fragility of the fishery had assessed penalties as low $200.
The bill is expected to get additional review by the Criminal Justice Committee.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: