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

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Tribal elver fishing

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



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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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Angry over their loss of tribal lands, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot leaders filed claims to roughly 60 percent of the land in Maine under the terms of a 1790 law that prohibited the transfer of Indian lands to non-Indians without congressional approval. 

More than 350,000 Maine residents lived on that land. President Jimmy Carter created a White House task force to look into the claims. Several years later, Congress approved and Carter signed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. It awarded $81.5 million to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes in exchange for the tribes giving up their claims to land.

As Mills noted in her legal opinion, the settlement and subsequent court decisions have upheld the state's authority to impose marine fisheries regulations on the tribes.

In 1997, several Passamaquoddies defied the state's fisheries regulations in a show of sovereignty and were charged by the state.

A year later, Gov. Angus King signed a measure to resolve the battle by awarding the tribe special licensing provisions for lobster, elvers and several other saltwater species. Last month, the Legislature removed that Passamaquoddy exception when it passed a bill limiting the tribe to 200 licenses. 

The Passamaquoddies' decision to again exercise sovereignty rights has touched off standoffs -- some close to physical confrontations, state officials have said -- over authority in the marine fisheries and enforcement of state regulations.

The Passamaquoddies set a strict limit on catches by members, said Newell Lewey of Pembroke, a tribal council spokesman. The entire group of license holders cannot exceed 3,600 pounds -- a ceiling the tribe has set to sustain the fishery, he said.

The tribe intends to stand firm on the issue of sovereignty, said Lewey, calling the emergency bill a way to single out the tribe for punishment.

Bennett, the governor's press secretary, said the Passamaquoddies' unyielding position is a hurdle to progress on other matters of concern to the state and the tribe.

"It makes it very difficult (for the governor) to work with them ... moving forward," said Bennett. "That's not saying he won't be. But there are issues that need to be dealt with."

Bennett did not elaborate on what the other issues might be.

She disputed the Passamaquoddies' characterization of LePage's manner and message in a telephone call Monday to Chief Clayton Cleaves.

Lewey, who was one of four witnesses who heard the call over a speaker, said LePage threatened reprisals against the tribe if its members did not comply with the state's elver regulations.

That description matched one provided in a copy of a letter from Cleaves to Alfond, which was released by the tribe Tuesday.

The chief wrote that the governor was enraged and issued ultimatums. "There was no room for dialogue or continuation of communication about this matter," Cleaves' letter said.

"That is not a threat," Bennett said. "That's (the governor) speaking from the heart. He was gravely concerned -- he was upset even."

She said LePage, since taking office in 2011, had enjoyed a constructive relationship with the Passamaquoddy Tribe. "He would hate to see this issue jeopardize that relationship," she said.

"They're violating the law," Bennett said, "and they're the only tribe that is doing so."

"I don't know how it's going to be resolved," said Lewey of the tribal council. "But we're going to go fishing."

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


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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?



View Results