BANGOR, Maine — Representatives of Maine’s Indian tribes said Friday they want the state to respect their right to regulate their own fisheries and take advantage of a tiny creature that fetches a big price — the elver.
State officials said they want to ensure federal restrictions are followed because a violation could result in a shutdown of the elver fishing industry in Maine.
The two sides shared their concerns during a meeting at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office in Bangor. At the heart of the issue is legislation proposed by the state that would significantly reduce the number of elver fishing licenses issued by the Passamaquoddy tribe.
Both the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have expressed concerns about the depleted state of the American eel population, and have been weighing tighter restrictions. The Fish and Wildlife Service is contemplating whether to classify the American eel as an endangered species, a move that would outlaw elver fishing, according to Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, who attended the meeting.
Maine caps the fishing licenses it issues at 407, but during last year’s elver season, to the surprise of the state, the Passamaquoddy tribe issued 236 elver licences. The year before, when prices were lower, the tribe issued just two. The tribe was granted license-issue authority in the mid-1990s.
Passamaquoddy tribal leaders said they recently learned of proposed legislation that would limit to eight the amount of elver licenses the tribe could issue. The tribe and Keliher scheduled Friday’s meeting to discuss the potential for licensing restrictions.
Keliher expected to meet three or four representatives of the Passamaquoddy tribe to discuss their concerns about the elver fishery, he said. Instead, he arrived to find chiefs, officials and members representing all four of Maine’s tribes, bringing the meeting attendance to more than 20.
Keliher said the bill was submitted as a placeholder because the state would like to address elver fishing limits during this Legislative session to ensure Maine doesn’t exceed the federally allotted amount of gear allowed during the season.
He assured Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor and Chief Clayton Cleaves that the Department of Marine Resources did not support a limit that small and that the number in the final bill would be altered based on conversations between the tribe and state. The number eight came from a statute already in place that limits the Penobscots and Houlton Band of Micmacs to eight elver licenses, Keliher said.
Cleaves and other tribal representatives argued that any state-mandated limit would violate the tribes’ “inherent authority” to hunt and fish. Cleaves said the tribes should be left to regulate their own fisheries.
Cleaves handed Keliher a draft copy of a document outlining Passamaquoddy elver fishing regulations. Among the proposed rules is a ban on selling elvers longer than 4 inches and $50, $100 and $500 license fees depending on the gear a fisherman plans to use.
“What we do on our end is our concern,” the Passamaquoddy chief said.
The chief said his Pleasant Point community is facing 67 percent unemployment, and tribal members need a way to work and make money.
“We need to bring home bread and butter,” Cleaves said.
In 2012, elvers sparked a firestorm of interest after the baby eels started fetching $2,600 per pound at market by the end of fishing season. That’s approximately three times the $891 per pound that fishermen were paid on average for their catch in 2011.
Maine is one of just two states in the country that allows elver fishing. The other, South Carolina, issues just 10 fishing licenses for one river per year, according to Keliher.
Elver fishing has become so lucrative and popular that more than 5,000 people have entered a new Maine lottery that will award three to six licenses.
“We want to go earn our money and this is one way we can do it,” Cleaves said.
Leaders from each tribe, the Passamaquoddy, Penobscots, Micmacs and Maliseets, said they are committed stewards of the environment and natural resources, and that they want to conserve hunting and fishing opportunities for future generations. However, they said, they want to do so through rules and regulations set by the sovereign tribes, not the state.
Keliher said the state needs to be careful how much fishing it allows, not only because of the potential risk to the eel population, but also because too much fishing could prompt the federal government to intervene.
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulations limit the amount of gear — nets and traps used in elver fishing — allowed in Maine waters during elver fishing season to under 1,300, according to Keliher. If the state surpasses that limit, federal agencies could cut off the sale of Maine elvers, effectively shutting down the industry.
Penobscot Indian Nation Tribal Chief Kirk Francis said he would like to see scientific data on whether overfishing is actually the cause of the eel depletion or if pollution or changes in habitat and environment are the main contributing factors.
Cleaves and Francis argued that the state cannot regulate the hunting or fishing rights of tribal members — that responsibility falls to tribal governments.
“That’s our position today. It will be our position tomorrow and 10 years down the road,” Cleaves said.
Keliher said the state and tribal governments would hold more meetings in the future in an effort to come to an agreement where both the state and tribes may issue licenses without causing the state to fall out of compliance.