A top federal fisheries official says the government has no plan to intervene in a dispute between Maine and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over the harvesting of elvers, even though the tribe has issued so many permits that it put Maine in violation of federal standards.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has been monitoring events in Maine and is working with the state to ensure that it remains in compliance with federal elver management plans, said Kate Taylor, senior fisheries management plan coordinator for the commission.

Taylor said she knows of only one instance in which the U.S. commerce secretary, who oversees the commission, has shut down a commercial fishery because it didn’t meet the terms of a plan.

“It is not something that happens often,” Taylor said. “The commission and member states do try to work together so that it does not get to that point.”

On Thursday, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Passamaquoddy Tribe said they were still working to resolve a conflict between the state’s management authority and the tribe, which says it has sovereignty over harvesting by its members.

“The process is ongoing,” said Fred Moore, the tribe’s spokesman for fisheries matters. “The situation is delicate and has to be handled delicately. There are no new developments, but we are working very hard to find a peaceful solution.”

Moore said tribal leaders and Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher spoke by telephone, and the two sides expect to meet again soon.

At stake is access to the baby eels that fetched as much as $2,600 a pound in 2012, when demand in the Far East boosted prices to record levels. That demand drove the value of last year’s catch to $40 million, second only to lobster as Maine’s most valuable fishery.

Under the federal management plan, Maine is limited to 744 licenses and 1,242 pieces of gear. State law gives the Passamaquoddies the right to issue 200 licenses, but the tribe has refused to observe the limit, saying it has sold 525 licenses.

That number, on top of the approximately 400 licenses issued by the Department of Marine Resources this year, puts Maine over the federal limit, which prompted Keliher to warn that the federal fisheries commission could shut down the elver harvest.

State officials and law enforcement officers tried to check tribal members’ licenses in Washington County on Sunday, and some gear was confiscated in a tense situation.

“The situation has calmed down significantly,” said Moore, the Passamaquoddy fisheries spokesman. He said the Department of Marine Resources continues to patrol the fishery and enforce existing law, and the Passamaquoddies continue to fish.

“There is no question that a conflict exists,” he said.

How that conflict is resolved is critical because what happens in Maine in 2013 could factor into the way eels are managed in the future all along the East Coast.

Officials from the 15 Atlantic commission states will meet near Washington, D.C., in May to decide whether to change the commercial fishery for elvers.

The commission will hold a public hearing April 30 in Augusta with the Department of Marine Resources as part of the planning process.

Among the options being considered are maintaining the status quo, imposing catch quotas, and shutting down the fishery.

A stock assessment conducted for the commission in May determined that eel populations were depleted, likely due to a combination of factors, including habitat loss, mortality from dam turbines and overfishing.

Although fishing pressure has fallen, the assessment said, the total catch may still be too high, given the other factors.

“Fishing on all life stages of eels, particularly young-of-the-year and in-river silver eels migrating to the spawning grounds, could be particularly detrimental to the stock, especially if other sources of mortality (i.e., turbine mortality, changing oceanographic conditions) cannot be readily controlled,” the assessment reads. “Management efforts to reduce mortality on American eels in the U.S. are warranted.”

Kenneth Oliveira, an eel researcher at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was among the independent scientists who peer-reviewed the stock assessment. He agreed that stocks were depleted but said it was unclear how severely.

“It is probably one of the hardest species to get a handle on,” Oliveira said.

Born from eggs spawned in the Sargasso Sea, near the Bahamas, the tiny eels are carried by currents to the eastern U.S. They eventually show up as translucent “glass eels,” or elvers, in streams and rivers from Florida to Canada.

Those eels may spend 15 to 20 years in Maine’s freshwater rivers and streams — often entirely out of sight of humans — before finally going downstream, bound for the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Harvesters set two types of nets in rivers to catch elvers as they run with the tides.

The dispute between Maine and the Passamaquoddies reflects lingering differences over the interpretation of a landmark court settlement.

The 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement awarded $81.5 million to the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes to settle their claims that 60 percent of the land in Maine had been wrongfully taken from them under the terms of a 1790 law.

The tribes gave up their claims to the land under the settlement, and — at least in the eyes of the state — certain aspects of their sovereignty.

Attorney General Janet Mills, in a legal opinion dated March 12, said the settlement and subsequent court cases affirm that the Department of Marine Resources has authority to regulate marine fisheries for the tribes.

But the Passamaquoddies maintain that they retain a sovereign right to manage fisheries that have historically been used by tribal members.

Conditions in Asian markets, where baby eels are used to stock aquaculture operations, have created a “gold rush” for elvers in Maine and South Carolina, the only commercial fisheries on the East Coast, Oliveira said. But fishermen from the Dominican Republican to New Zealand have taken notice, he said.

A major concern for fishermen and river-dependent businesses — such as Maine’s hydropower industry — is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pending decision on whether to list the American eel as an endangered species.

The California-based Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability petitioned the federal agency to list the eel in 2010. The next year, federal biologists determined that the eel “may need federal protection as a threatened or endangered species,” based on a 90-day review of the stocks.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of a larger study. But that review is not expected to be completed this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability has since sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to force a faster decision on the petition — a common occurrence in endangered-species cases.

 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com