April 3, 2013

Maine official: Passamaquoddy defiance imperils elver fishery

Atlantic regulators could halt harvesting for non-compliance with Maine's licensing limits, which the state may criminalize.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Passamaquoddy Tribe's violation of state law by selling more than its allotted number of elver fishing licenses is jeopardizing Maine's fisheries, economy and families, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Tuesday.

Today's poll: Tribal elver fishing

Should the Passamaquoddy Tribe be subject to the state's regulatory authority over marine resources?

Yes

No

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click image to enlarge

Bruce Steeves uses a lantern while dip netting for elvers on a river in southern Maine last year. The young, translucent eels swim upriver each spring in Maine and can fetch $2,000 a pound. The fishery’s value last year was $38 million.

2012 Associated Press file

click image to enlarge

An elver fisherman holds a pair of the creatures in his gloved hand while fishing in a southern Maine river last April.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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"The Passamaquoddy Tribe has indeed put the entire elver fishery at risk for Maine fishermen, but not due to the number of pounds of elvers they are landing," Keliher said in a news release Tuesday.

He said a management plan established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission limits Maine to a designated number of licenses and pieces of gear, and the commission can shut down fisheries in non-compliant states -- as Maine is now.

Under the management plan, Maine is limited to 744 licenses and 1,242 pieces of gear, Keliher said. The state has issued about 400 licenses for the lucrative baby eels this year and allocated 150 to the Passamaquoddies. But they have refused to abide by the limit, saying they have sold 525 licenses.

That "puts the state out of compliance with the license limitation, regardless of the actual pounds landed," Keliher said.

He said officials must enforce state law to avoid possible closure of Maine's second-most valuable fishery, behind lobster, which would hurt hundreds of Maine families and the economy.

The tribe has remained adamant that it has sovereignty over its elver fishery, and tension is mounting as the legal and cultural wrangling continues.

According to a legal opinion from Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, the tribe has no jurisdiction over elvers or any other saltwater fishery in the state.

The opinion, dated March 12 and released Tuesday by Gov. Paul LePage's press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, says Maine law subjects Passamaquoddies, like any other residents or visitors, to the state's regulatory authority over marine resources.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he is spending virtually all his time and energy trying to keep communication open with the Passamaquoddies and other tribes to find a solution.

"A lot of people's safety is in jeopardy," he said. "We're dealing with people's livelihoods."

He said the tone of the political communication has not helped.

With tensions high, Alfond said, compromise and resolution will be difficult. "This one is going to be a test," he said.

It's important for the state to ensure the sustainability of the fishery, make sure no one gets hurt and comply with federal law, Alfond said.

The Legislature's Marine Resources Committee will meet Wednesday to consider an emergency bill addressing the crisis. Alfond said the measure could go to the Senate by Thursday.

Keliher, who requested the legislation, recommended criminalizing license violations or illegal catches and setting fines at a mandatory $2,000. He also has asked for a requirement that license holders provide photo identification so that officials can monitor use of the licenses and dealers can be certain who is selling to them.

He called on the committee to include in the measure that no cash transactions be allowed, and that landings data be made available to the Bureau of Marine Resources' Marine Patrol.

Finding a solution acceptable to all sides will be no simple matter. The issues have been vigorously debated for decades without a lasting resolution.

The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act redefined the state's relationship with its tribes in ways that are still a matter of contention, as evidenced by the differing interpretations on Passamaquoddy rights to harvesting elvers. 

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Tribal elver fishing

Should the Passamaquoddy Tribe be subject to the state's regulatory authority over marine resources?

Yes

No

View Results